A Brief History of the American Prairie
A quintessential symbol of America’s prairies are the beloved American bison. Prior to the 1800’s somewhere from 30 to 60 million of these massive ruminants roamed North America, with most of them living on the Great Plains. In contrast there are half a million living in the USA today. Indigenous tribes not only relied on the bison for food, clothing, shelter, and tools, but also cultivated a deep spiritual connection with them. Hunter-gatherers and indigenous tribes acted as the first land managers, paying special attention to the role of grazers and fire on the ecosystem.
Prairies are flat grasslands characterized by moderate rainfall, moderate temperatures, high biodiversity, high fertility, and very few trees. They are found in areas where there’s not enough rainfall for forests, but also too much for deserts. Besides aesthetic beauty, healthy grasslands protect soil and water resources, provide food and habitat for wildlife and livestock, as well as store carbon deep within the soil.
Shockingly, of the 170 million acres of tallgrass prairie in North America, today only less than 4% remains intact due to development and conversion to farmland. When Europeans arrived they converted much of this ecosystem into farmland because of its extremely fertile soil, killing off most of the bison and introducing grazing species such as cattle and sheep.
A keystone species is defined as, “a species on which other species in an ecosystem largely depend, such that if it were removed the ecosystem would change drastically.” The combination of removing the American bison as a keystone species, extensive tilling for conventional crop production, and overgrazing effectively destroyed the delicate ecosystem balance.
The Dust Bowl of the 1930's best exemplifies the horrific economic, environmental, health, and social consequences of a mismanaged agricultural system. With a warmer atmosphere, changes in precipitation patterns, increasing rates of wildfires, and increasingly unpredictable weather patterns, actively stewarding grassland biodiversity provides us with an opportunity to create more resilient ecological systems.
The Role of Grazers in Holistic Grassland Management
According to Regeneration: Ending the climate crisis in one generation, 27 percent of our planet’s entire surface is covered by grassland. Grazers and grasslands have coevolved over millions of years together, developing a highly mutualistic relationship. Despite increasingly negative public opinion regarding the impact of livestock on the climate, grazers have historically played a critical role in managing grassland health in terms of fire mitigation, fertilization, nutrient cycling, increased plant health and productivity, and their role in the carbon cycle.
Rather than blame the cow and other grazing animals for the climate crisis, it’s important to recognize that the issues associated with conventional ranching practices are a result of poor land management. Feedlots and mismanaged ranches are working in opposition with the natural world, whereas regenerative ranching mimics nature, taking into account the needs of the land, plants, animals, and people.
Ranches like ours integrate Holistic Planned Grazing and Holistic Management strategies to emulate the positive effects of wild herds on our prairies. There is no one size fits all approach to regeneration, so each ranch carefully considers the timing, frequency, and duration of grazing animals on their individual piece of land.
In a regenerative system a grazing herd fertilizes and aerates the soil with their hooves by trampling old plant matter, manure, and urine into the ground. They eat a diverse diet of native grasses, forbs, and the leaves of woodier plants, which in turn stimulates new plant growth. Living plant roots continuously store carbon, store and filter water, as well as restore soil microbial diversity, making the land more resilient to drought and flooding.
On our ranches alone, cattle consume approximately 60 to 70 species of native grasses. They live in harmony with the prairie ecosystem, as nature intended. Their life actually regenerates bird and other wildlife habitat and ensures that ranchers, conservationists, hunters, and hungry people can count on grasslands as a place of refuge and sustenance for future generations.
Fire as a Grasslands Management Tool
Indigenous tribes utilized fire as a sacred land management tool to influence the bison and maintain balance in grassland ecosystems. Philosophically, they believed in fire as medicine and as a deeply spiritual tool which honors the ways that destruction can bring new life. For many, fire application was, and still is a critical skill for survival. Scholars agree that anthropogenic fire, meaning fire originating from human activity, impacted the land far more frequently than fires caused by lightning. By clearing the land of excessive biomass, they also were able to prevent and mitigate the otherwise devastating effects of wildfires.
Although Western society has largely ignored the traditional ecological knowledge of indigenous tribes in favor of fire suppression, regenerative agriculture utilizes this information to design closed-loop systems aimed to work with nature, instead of against it. These prescribed burns or “cultural burns” differ from wildfires because they take into consideration seasonality, extent of the area being burned, frequency, site, and the desired outcome.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refers to Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) as, “the evolving knowledge acquired by indigenous and local peoples over hundreds or thousands of years through direct contact with the environment. This knowledge is specific to a location and includes the relationships between plants, animals, natural phenomena, landscapes, and timing of events that are used for lifeways, including but not limited to hunting, fishing, trapping, agriculture, and forestry.”
Regenerative agriculture utilizes the transformative power of fire. Fire turns dead plant material into ash, releasing beneficial nutrients to be absorbed by the soil. The ashy black color attracts sunlight and warms the Earth so that dormant plants and seedlings begin to sprout. These seedlings and young shoots attract the bison and other grazing animals because they are highly nutritious. Indigenous tribes and modern day regenerative ranchers both utilize this to their advantage in influencing the behavior of grazing animals.
Fires and grazing mammals also clear away the upper canopy so that native grasses and other plant species continue to receive sunlight. This is important because some prairies do in fact receive enough water for trees and woodier plant species to grow, however, “dark forest canopies absorb more heat than highly reflective grasslands,” and although counter intuitive, more trees and woody shrubs on the prairies actually can harm the environment.
Prairie flora’s biomass (plant material) is specially adapted to grassland fires, with three quarters of plant biomass located underground for protection. Their roots are so strong and densely packed that people in the 1800’s actually built their homes using sod bricks. With the uptick in wildfires and other natural disasters, the deep roots of prairie plants can safely store carbon in ways that a forest cannot. These roots not only store carbon, but also hold valuable topsoil down, mitigating erosion like we saw with the Dust Bowl.
Regenerative Agriculture, Grazing Animals, and Grassland Health
Regenerative agriculture draws on indigenous knowledge and modern science to conserve and regenerate our grasslands. By focusing on whole systems and the interconnected living parts, we’re building a more resilient food system for all. We take our job seriously and have quantitative data ensuring that we’re enhancing wildlife and plant diversity, soil health, sequestered carbon, as well as the nutritional value of our animal products.
Grazing animals have always played an integral role in the overall health and vitality of our grasslands. On our ranches, animals live in harmony with their environment the way that nature intended. We promote biodiversity and feel grateful to see monarch butterflies pollinating our milkweed, and nesting birds in our bunch grasses. Healthy prairies really do make happy people.