Modern range management preserves public resource
By Doug Rich
Grazing, wildlife, recreation, energy, and development put enough pressure on western rangeland without adding in the constant tug of war over public grazing lands. Mark Eisele works with all of these challenges on a daily basis as he manages his ranch near Cheyenne, Wyo.
“We are very close to Cheyenne, which puts a lot of pressure on us, and we graze on one of the most highly used and recreated pieces of U.S. Forest Service land in the West,” Eisele. “This is a very high use and very visible area.”
There is always a cry to eliminate livestock production from public lands, and this is more so in highly used areas like the Medicine Bow region where Eisele’s leases are located. Eisele said a forest service official touring the area several years ago told him the Medicine Bow region was one of the best-managed regions she had seen. She described it as a great mix of recreation, grazing and stewardship.
“There are photos of grazing in that country from over 100 years ago and it was pretty abused,” Eisele said. “But the progression and knowledge of range management has come so far that now we can spend the season up there and the following year you can’t tell we were even there. The take-half, leave-half philosophy is working.”
In the old days there was more commingling of cattle and there was no strategic plan to keep them off riparian areas. Eisele said what makes these allotments different today is that they have been individualized, which is a change from the old days of mass movement of herds managed by range riders.
“We individually have some say in the management in our part of the forest,” Eisele said.
Producers have not received a stocking increase on their allotments in many years but Eisele said that is not the entire picture. He said 30 years ago weaned calves weighed 350 pounds but today they could weigh as much as 650 pounds. In that same time period cows have gone from 900 pounds to 1,400 pounds.
“We got our increase,” Eisele said. “The total pounds of beef we produce is larger and the resource is in better shape. That validates our range management protocols.”
His ranch ranges in elevation from 6,400 feet at his home ranch just outside Cheyenne to 8,600 feet on the Forest Service leases near the Abraham Lincoln monument just off Interstate Highway 80. Eisele said the change in elevation actually creates an opportunity.
“We have some noxious weeds at the ranch, mainly larkspur,” Eisele said.
He said they have grazed it, sprayed it and rotated through it, but it is still tough to kill and expensive to control. Eisele has been able to manage around it, however.
“We are able to move cattle to the forest leases in late spring or early summer where there is no noxious weed problem,” Eisele said. “Then we burn off the pasture with larkspur and in mid- to late summer we come home with the cattle and we can graze everything. That is why the forest land is so important to us.”
Their biggest concern with forest leases is environmental groups such Western Watershed or its spin-off organizations, according to Eisele. This group sued the U.S. Forest Service over water quality issues. The lawsuit stipulated that cattle were the main cause of contamination to streams on those leases.
“We were in litigation about 10 years over that issue,” Eisele said. “It went to federal court and the court of appeals but we won. Our practices were supported and vindicated.”
DNA testing proved that there is naturally occurring contamination in streams from dead grass, fish and wildlife. It could not be proven that livestock in the lease area were the main cause of contamination.
“The secret is to get cows that seek the upland and not stay in the riparian areas,” Eisele said. “That is where your better hard grass is anyway.”
Eisele said most producers turn cattle out on the forest service leases from June 1 to June 10 and everybody is off no later than Oct. 5. Everyone has a minimum of three pastures to rotate through on their forest service leases. Although a few will graze yearlings or sheep most producers have cow-calf pairs on their leases.
“Most of them are backdoor ranches that can turn directly out on the forest leases,” Eisele said. “We have to truck our livestock to the forest.”
Eisele starts with a different pasture every year when he takes cattle to his forest leases. Every pasture gets a different on and off day every year.
The calves are weaned when they leave the forest. Trucks bring the calves to the ranch headquarters, cows go the west end of the ranch and then rotate eastward during the fall and winter before ending up at the main ranch headquarters by calving time. Calving time is in late February.
“We run three separate herds here,” Eisele said. “My cattle start at the ranch and go to the forest, my father’s herd starts here and ends up going to grass managed by the Agricultural Research Service for the summer, and then we have a herd of cows that stays on the ranch all summer.”
All three herds are fed differently. His father’s herd has minimal supplementation and is very efficient cows. Eisele supplements his cows because they are under more stress because they have to be trucked to the forest and are short of grass for the first 30 days they are on the forest leases. Eisele said the herd that stays at the ranch is called the family herd. This herd never leaves the ranch and receives the best of everything.
The herd that stays at the ranch are bigger and are descendants of the cowherd started by the King family who owned the ranch before Eisele and his family bought it. Eisele said the King family raised amazing sheep and outstanding cattle.
“We realize big cattle are not as efficient and we are slowly backing those cattle off,” Eisele said. “The original King Ranch herd had cows that pushed 1,900 pounds mature weight and some were in excess of 2,000 pounds. They were Mrs. King’s pride and joy.”
The low maintenance herd has really big calves at weaning and the ones at the ranch, that get the best of everything, are way ahead of everybody but the cost efficiency is not there.
The goal of the U.S. Forest Service is to preserve and protect the resource of the forest. Eisele said the forest service is doing their job protecting the resource and ranchers like him are doing their job utilizing the resource. Modern range management practices mean that both groups can do their jobs.
Doug Rich can be reached by phone at 785-749-5304 or by email at email@example.com.