PRODUCTION AGRICULTURE IS A VERY IMPORTANT PART OF THE MISSION AND CULTURAL HERITAGE OF BLUE VALLEY RANCH, AS WELL AS THE LOCAL COMMUNITY.
Blue Valley Ranch operates a cow-calf operation typical of high elevation ranches. A prescribed grazing program makes use of high quality mountain forages during the growing season, but harsh winters require residual feeding of hay for several months of the year. This program also uses grazing as a habitat management tool to benefit wildlife, particularly mule deer. In this way, livestock provide two benefits to the ranch. First, they supply a profitable method for harvesting rangeland forage that is otherwise economically unavailable, and second, they also provide a versatile tool for habitat management.
Guided by a GIS-based carrying capacity model, Blue Valley Ranch has expanded its cattle herd over the last decade to nearly 300 head of Hereford X Angus cattle. The choice of English breeds matches the high mountain environment consisting of long winters and a short, though productive, growing season. This carefully chosen herd size is also large enough to provide acceptable economic returns to the operation and to be used effectively as a habitat management tool, but it is not so large that inputs begin to outweigh returns or there is a danger of detrimental impacts to the land resource. A recent enterprise analysis showed that annual operating costs for the cattle program were slightly exceeded by annual revenues from the sale of livestock, which is a good indicator that the program is on the right track. Further modifications will make the program more profitable, while an extensive range monitoring program will track the impacts of grazing on habitat and wildlife.
ONE OF THE PRIMARY REASONS FOR MAINTAINING A CATTLE HERD ON BLUE VALLEY RANCH IS TO USE LIVESTOCK GRAZING AS A HABITAT MANAGEMENT TOOL.
For instance, grazing can be used to modify vegetation structure by heavily grazing a field during the fall dormant season to remove residual plant matter, which reduces the build-up of dry plant material that fuels wildfires and can even lead to an earlier green-up the following spring. Grazing can be used to modify physiological state of vegetation, such as quickly grazing an area early in the spring to delay the rapid growth cycle of grasses and extend the growing season. Finally, grazing can be used to alter water and nutrient cycles, such as lightly grazing an area to leave more ground cover which helps trap and hold moisture. Planning these grazing treatments can, over time, begin to shape habitat in a positive way to the benefit of wildlife and livestock both.
Many methods can be used to manipulate and control grazing distribution, including strategic supplement placement, temporary electric fence, intensive herding, and persistent conditioning of grazers’ foraging habitats. Careful planning every spring, and diligent monitoring of the frequency, intensity and timing of grazing with tools such as the Grazing Response Index (GRI) allow for an adaptive management approach to managing grazing that is effective and flexible.