Rotational cattle grazing at Sterling Ranch boosting land

Dozens of cattle, Angus mostly, hoofed their way through the Sterling Ranch housing development south of Littleton last Sunday morning, cowboys at their flanks either on horseback or four-wheelers.

The cattle drive wasn’t off course. Harold Smethills, founder and chair of the development company, said he wants the herd on the property as a way to keep its 3,400 acres as natural as possible.

“There used to be big herds of bison, which, for thousands of years, used to go through, aerate, eat and control the grasslands,” Smethills said. “The cows are doing exactly what the bison used to do.”

The few dozen cattle will soon be joined by perhaps 100 more and the whole herd will spend the winter grazing just west of the development, Smethills said. By living on the land, the cattle will cut the risk of wildfires, boost soil health and provide a more hospitable environment for some of the area’s ground-based species such as burrowing owls.

Then in the spring, the cattle will be taken back to their normal pastures throughout the area and the land will be allowed to freely grow again, Smethills said.

That method is called rotational grazing, said Lauren Connell, director of stewardship for the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies. And in the past decade it’s grown more popular across the west. Farmers and ranchers typically use rotational grazing, but Smethill’s property is the first time Connell said she’s seen it used at a housing development.

Because this is the first season of rotational grazing at the Sterling Ranch, Connell said it’s too early to tell how effective it will be, but she’ll watch with great interest.

Representatives from the Bird Conservancy, Denver Botanic Gardens and other ecological and engineering experts worked with Smethills to develop his overall prairie management plan for the property, which includes rotational grazing.

It’s a simple enough concept, Connell said. Essentially, three things naturally “disturbed” or destroyed the land in a good way before human development, ultimately sparking regeneration and new growth: fire, prairie dogs and grazing large wild herds, she explained.

Humans tend to kill prairie dogs and work hard to either prevent wildfires entirely or put them out quickly once they’ve started, Connell continued. Additionally, humans hunted the once-massive herds of bison to near extinction.

By reintroducing periodic grazing with herds of cattle, humans can recreate a bit of the healthy destruction and create new life, Connell said.

“It’s an old technique applied to a modern world,” Brian Vogt, CEO of the Denver Botanic Gardens said.

The cattle provide healthy destruction by eating overgrown vegetation, much of which is dead or dying, thereby shrinking wildfire risk, Smethills said.

“So then the worst you get is a little grass fire,” he said. “You put that out, no big deal.”

While the cattle are grazing, their cloven hooves aerate the soil, Smethills said. Clearing out the old vegetation and loosening the soil makes the land habitable for creatures such as prairie dogs, which can, in turn, make the ground more hospitable for burrowing owls native to the area, Connell said.

And what comes in must go out. Cattle excrement fertilizes the soil without the chemicals found in many modern fertilizers.

“The residents do have to put up with that smell but it’s better than a fire,” Smethills added with a chuckle.

In a place like Sterling Ranch,  rotational grazing is a good way to restore the ground to a more natural state, bring back natural vegetation and animals that have been driven away by development, Vogt said..

So many other ranches or farms operate where “everything’s plowed up every year and lots of chemicals are dumped down,” Vogt said, adding that such land management practices aren’t sustainable.

“Soils, when depleted, have destroyed countless civilizations over time,” Vogt said. “Just think about our dust bowl.”

Rotational grazing can not only bring those soils back to life and but even increase the crop yield, he said.

To be effective and sustainable, however, the grazing must be well thought out and intentional, Connell cautioned. The number of cows, time spent grazing and amount of forage available are all crucial factors to consider. Allowing cattle to graze indefinitely could leave land barren or moving the animals too often could drain their energy, she said.

The process also has to be economical for land owners, Vogt added. He noted that not everybody has ready access to dozens of cattle or the know-how to start a rotational grazing program. The Botanic Gardens’ Chatfield Farms is developing a best practices model, which could be used as a reference for anyone interested in rotational grazing, he added.

The approach could be used on large tracts of land and drawn down for much smaller properties, Vogt said. A single homeowner could even use one or several goats to get similar results on their property.

“People really can take this to their own backyard,” Vogt said. “They probably can’t have a cattle drive, but they can create a pollinator garden or plant gardens that use less water using native and native adaptive plants. They can think about what they’re putting into their own soils, how they compost.”

Smethills said he’ll fine tune the practice over time and is discussing a second cattle drive for next year. In the meantime, he’s looking forward to April when the herd will move to a pasture north of West Titan Road where many cows will give birth, starting the cycle of life all over again.

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