While the grass growing on grazing land isn’t your typical farmed crop, it provides the nourishment for a wide variety of farm products, like the lambs that the Gutierrez Family raises. Many animals can be raised wholly or partially on grass, including horses, cattle, sheep, goats, and even pigs, turkeys and chickens! All of these animals eat grasses, weeds, and other tidbits growing or crawling in the ground.
Healthy grassland does more than just feed animals. It also filters water that seeps down into aquifers, prevents erosion, cleans the air, and provides habitat for smaller animals, birds, and insects. The United States has vast amounts of range land – approximately 1 in 4 acres!
Much of our nation’s rangeland is public land, meaning it is not privately owned. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages the 245 million acres of public range land spread across the US, the majority of it in 12 western states. BLM range land is divided into allotments and pastures, and individual ranchers can apply for permits to graze their animals in these specific areas. 155 million of the 245 million BLM acres allow grazing.
Grazing on BLM land is typically carefully monitored, with the number of animals grazing and the number of days they are allowed to graze restricted depending on the season, and abundance and type of grass. Ranchers grazing their cattle or sheep on BLM lands also pay grazing rents, typically per animal per month. Along with grazing, BLM range lands also provide us with recreational opportunities, like hiking and camping, assists in conservation efforts, like protecting sage grouse, and preserves the wide-open spaces that are slowly disappearing in other areas of the US.
While the BLM cares for our public range lands, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) helps landowners care for privately-held range and grasslands. These private lands make up 27% (528 million acres) of the total acreage in the lower 48 states. The NRCS has many programs and services available to farmers and ranchers to help them improve, preserve, and conserve their private pasture and range lands. Individuals can go to the NRCS for advice and assistance on improving soil quality, establishing more suitable types of grass, protecting riparian (area around creeks, streams, etc) areas, finding and improving waterways, and more.
Many NRCS programs work on a shared cost and reward basis with farmers and ranchers. For example, the NRCS might fund a project to allow a rancher to capture water seeping from underground sources to use to water his livestock. In exchange, the rancher might not graze his livestock on the creek beds, control weeds in those areas, and plant more trees. This type of exchange helps the rancher in that now he has more access to water, and helps the NRCS in that the rancher conserves and protects the waterways going through his land. Win-win!
While the BLM and NRCS manage or help manage the huge tracts of grass and range land in the United States, working with large-scale producers, small-scale and very small-scale farmers, ranchers, and community members have their state’s Cooperative Extension System offices as their go-to resource for information and assistance. These offices are staffed by one or more experts who provide useful, practical, and research-based information to agricultural producers, small business owners, youth, consumers, and others in rural areas and communities of all sizes. They are connected with the state’s land-grant university, for example, in Idaho, extension agents are University of Idaho employees.
The Extension System offers a huge range of programs and information to anyone who asks. The local extension agent can help a small farm, like the Gutierrez Family, for example, establish better grazing management procedures, or manage parasites and other pests. There is a huge wealth of information and expertise provided by the Extension System that is available to small producers AND to you and I! The Extension System has a lot more going on that just working with those in the agricultural profession. Click here to find out more about the programs they offer.
There are many people who might assume that all of the open range and grass lands in the United States are just sitting there, and no one pays them mind. As you can see, however, that is far from the truth. These lands are managed and monitored and cared for by the organizations above, and by thousands of individual landowners, federal and state employees, conservationists, and volunteers. Without the efforts of all of these people, our nation’s range and grass lands are kept in good health, so that they can continue to support grazing animals and wildlife, and provide beauty and outdoor recreational opportunities for all of us in perpetuity.