Northern Ag Network Note: Although this article was originally written last August in response to the wildfires in California, it's unfortunately still very much relevant this early in the spring. April isn't generally considered a big month for major wildfires, but the Anderson fire among several others in Oklahoma and Kansas are making it clear that unless there are some major changes, this year isn't going to be a typical fire season. Abby Grisedale, the 2015 California Beef Ambassador and daughter of a wild land firefighter and rancher, makes a compelling case for better management and the use of grazing to mitigate wildfires.
As a passionate California native, my heart is breaking for my home state. Beautiful forests, lush grazing land, foothills and plains, all burning. Over 95 wildfires are raging with minimal containment on the west coast right now. Drought conditions and poor conservation strategies came together to create conditions more than conducive to the worst and most dangerous situation California (and other states) have seen in many, many years.
I won’t pretend to know more than I do, but I will tell you what I do know. As the daughter of a wild land firefighter and rancher, I’ve had a unique perspective on fires and forest management from an early age. My father, through ranching, has shown me the deepest parts of our forests, dark and thick with towering cedars and redwood trees, and open high country meadows, scattered with fern and wild oaks.He has painted a picture of how these forests used to look when controlled burning was implemented, and I can tell you that the picture he paints is oft more beautiful than the one I look at. He also shows me how grazing is maintaining our forest ecosystem and how cows are as good of firefighters as he is. My father is a professional, twenty-five years deep in a rigorous and dangerous career, and as a rancher, is using cows to supplement the job he does.
Cattle eat whatever is within their reach, from leaves to grass to bushes, just anything. They keep grass at a manageable thickness, eating off every years growth to allow for freer moving grasses and more nutritious growth. I recently shared a photo on social media of a meadow that in the last few years, for lack of grazing, has become thick, gray and dead. I remember those wild oats waving in the wind each evening, and the sweet meadow grass was simply irresistible to deer, pigs, and cows alike. The maintenance of a meadow such as this is simple; allow well managed, calculated cow herds to graze, and you’ll have a well managed, beautiful piece of property.
Just a small amount of reason and common sense is required to understand a concept such as this. Pasture rotation is a method used to control grazing and ensure that nothing is damaged by overgrazing. Here is where the fire control comes in… Our cattle spend their summers in the high country grazing, and unwittingly firefighting by trimming down the fuel that would encourage an accidental spark’s development into a raging wildfire. Their winters are spent at home, where they graze the old growth from the spring and mow down the fire hazard. This system was developed by my great-grandfather, Robert Grisedale, and hasn’t changed since then, not because we don’t innovate and develop new ideas throughout our business and industry, but because it WORKS.
The next obvious question is “But don’t cattle damage the environment?” Now, I already spoke to the fact that this system works, and if you’ve visited the Sequoia National Forest on Greenhorn Mountain, you’ll see beautiful, beautiful forest all around you. Cattle grazing in deep canyons, deer bounding through the trees, birds chirping and the occasional bear lumbering along. An alive and thriving ecosystem that includes cows is proof enough for me that cattle are vital to forest management. Cattle aerate soils and soggy meadows to promote water output, they fertilize future grasses with nutrient rich manure, unfortunately and oftentimes they provide a food source for predators, and they bring a rancher’s interest into the government lands that are sometimes overlooked. Ranchers develop springs to cater to quail’s needs, brush out trails to make travel easier, maintain roads for human recreation and contribute to efforts to fight illegal activity in our forest lands.
As a passionate rancher and advocate for healthy forests, and a daughter of a firefighter who has been gone far too long this summer, I want you to take a hard look at your philosophy on grazing and cows in the forest ecosystem, because they’re a vital part of the solution. While these wildfires spread across the western united States, I encourage you to pray hard for the firefighters and for drenching, life saving, land saving rain, and next time you see a rancher who has invested their efforts in grazing and maintaining a local forest, shake their hand, and thank them for being a real environmentalist.