Field Day Recap: July 18 2012 – Wild Lands Ranching: Mike DeCook, DeCook Ranch
Early on one of the many hot days of the summer, a group of forty farmers, landowners, graziers, and experts met to see a bit of history. Mike DeCook of Lovilia IA, assisted by friends and family, led the group on a tour of pastures he’s restoring to prairie and oak savanna. While the weather in recent months has decreased the forage growth, DeCook is working to keep his animals grazing all summer and winter.
Which is important, since 80 of his recent acquisitions are bison, and are suited for rangeland roaming rather than intensive rotations.
In addition to custom grazing cattle, last year the farm took on a number of bison in an effort to marry the desire to restore and maintain native prairie, reduce inputs, and make a living doing it. With technical, financial, and moral support from PFI, the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, and USDA-NRCS, DeCook Ranch has embarked on an ambitious enterprise. Eight hundred acres have been allotted to the bison, which will roam and forage as they please. Bison stay in more cohesive groups than cattle, and will essentially rotate themselves around the area as forage runs short. These natural “mobs” will also effectively graze during the winter, even through snow.
DeCook has utilized patch-burn grazing to incorporate native prairie species into his pastures. While still in its infancy on the DeCook Ranch, a few blades of bluestem peeked up through the forage and leaf litter. As attending Iowa State researcher Shannon Rusk explained, fire is a natural part of prairie ecosystems. The fire burns down existing vegetation and provides nutrients to new seedlings that germinate from the seedbed. The bison then “follow the fire,” eating the new grass while it is immature and highly nutritious. Jeff Matthias of USDA-NRCS explained that through the patch-burning and seeding of native prairie species, forage diversity will skyrocket. The bison will utilize different plants at different times of the year depending on their needs and the plants’ growth stages. While cattle often need or prefer to be “told” what to eat, bison will be more selective and independently get what they desire and require.
One challenge with managing bison is that they’re, well, hard to manage. By providing forage in excess, DeCook will encourage them to not test fences and boundaries. He also keeps them happy by allowing them to roam at will and to remain in normal bison family units. Calves will not be weaned and separated, and the bulls run with the cows at all times. When harvest time comes, entire families of bison will be shot in the field and then processed. Since the animals’ daily lives are low-stress, even the older bison meat should be of acceptable tenderness and quality.
Oak savanna is also being restored on portions of the ranch. By selectively removing trees and burning down existing vegetation, a two-tiered canopy (high trees and low grass) is being developed. Joe McGovern of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation explained the history and basic ecology of the savanna. The trees provide shade and shelter, but the land is not forest that would normally be classified as “useless” to farmers or graziers. Grasses grow under the oak trees and provide forage for the bison, which will eventually be allowed to graze some of these areas.
The combination of ecologically-minded practices and willingness to deviate from the norm will hopefully be seen in a profitable and truly sustainable system. DeCook noted that the real differences will not be evident for a few years, when the prairie species are truly established. But for now, returning this small section of Iowa to its natural origins will provide lessons and experiences aplenty.