Sunday, June 16, 2024

OUR GEM: Exploring a ‘no damage’ philosophy to Cattle Ranching in the Coeur d’Alene Basin

Alongside the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River sits Castlerock Ranch. At the turn of the 19th century, the ranch started as a hay farm for working stock in the mines and logging outfits. Today it is a grazing operation for grass-finished cattle and an event venue. Albert Walsh and his wife, Jordan, took over operations in 2014 and were faced with a lower crop yield for their cattle despite irrigation. They knew this land needed change.

“We need to keep in mind the historic use of our land, and sometimes we are starting with a very depleted resource base. In our case, years of haying, application of herbicides and salt-based fertilizers depleted the soil and changed the pH to where no matter how much water you provided, it did not produce.  In my experience, it takes some inputs, in our case compost and organic fertilizer, to get the ecosystem functioning well again and then good management can continue to grow it from there.”

Walsh implemented managed grazing to replace herbicide in managing broadleaf weeds and allowed nature’s succession process to play out. He also applied compost and organic fertilizers to get the biology going and enhance the nutrient cycle. 

“A big challenge with herbicides is that they have a lot of unintended collateral damage. Often you are killing your ‘good’ plants along with the target species. If you have sheep or cattle, they are willing consumers of broadleaf weeds in the spring, and weeds can be a valuable nutrition source for them. A cow is a big, four stomached, accelerated composter, and she will turn common tansy, young knapweed, hawkweed, oxeye daisy, red sorrel, grasses and legumes into a beautiful, uniform cow pie that serves as fertility for more desirable pasture plants.”

Walsh’s technique of managed grazing uses single-wire electric fencing to limit the space the cows have access to, which means they clean up the "plate" in front of them, weeds and all. He uses no herbicides on the pastures the cattle roam, knowing that his cattle will happily eat the weeds. Additionally, weight gains are excellent because nutrition stays high as the cattle are frequently moved to new areas and motivated to keep eating. In time — and it will take multiple years — the weeds go away, because the more desirable plants outcompete them. 

“I know it sounds silly, but if you come look at the pasture I started managed grazing on 10 years ago, there are almost no weeds. It used to be a sea of white and yellow in July with oxeye daisy and common tansy, but now it’s just a deep green of grasses and forbs. I seek out weedy pastures near me so that my cows get access to the weeds they can no longer get in my pastures. The weeds have valuable tannins and nutrients that keep the cattle healthy and the beef delicious.”  

Walsh focuses on nutrient management and considers:

• Where and when the cattle are depositing urine and manure so that it is concentrated in feed, shade or riparian areas

• Using animal impact to replace mechanical and chemical roles

• Using soil tests and plant sap analysis to apply the correct types of fertilizers

• Limiting cattle time in sensitive locations for minimal impact and giving adequate rest to plants

• Grow high-quality forage to make delicious beef

This approach, in return, reduces nutrient input to the Coeur d’Alene River, which eventually flows into Lake Coeur d'Alene. Walsh has worked with the Natural Resources Conservation Service NRCS to do irrigation upgrades and lower labor costs associated with cattle management. 

“NRCS really helped me improve my irrigation game, and we are much more efficient with our irrigation water than we used to be. We are finding that as our soil fertility increases, we also need less irrigation, which usually means I get to take a vacation at the end of August instead of moving irrigation. That is nice.”

If you are interested in lowering your agricultural footprint, there are grants and resources to help:

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The Our Gem Coeur d’Alene Lake Collaborative is a team of committed and passionate professionals working to preserve lake health and protect water quality by promoting community awareness of local water resources through education, outreach and stewardship. Our Gem includes local experts from the University of Idaho Community Water Resource Center, Coeur d’Alene Tribe, Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, Kootenai Environmental Alliance, Coeur d’Alene Regional Chamber of Commerce, Kootenai County and Cd'A 2030.