Grazing cattle are useful tools in healing Colorado coal-mining scars, a Colorado research project shows.
Hoof action of the cattle, along with deposition of nutrients in their manure and urine, helps stimulate growth of selected native grasses. The long-term goal of the project is to make the area suitable for grazing again by both domestic and wild animals.
Using cattle to heal scarred rangeland isn’t a novel idea; it just hasn’t been used that much. That could change in the near future if a 10-member Colorado partnership at Coal Basin succeeds in using a three-year “cow stomp” to integrate biochar, compost and rotational grazing to heal a severely eroded, 50-acre former coal-mining tailings (waste-rock) pile.
The stomp consists of native grass seed covered by a layer of wheat straw, where cattle are fed hay. The acreage is fenced off into small plots. As cattle graze hay in each plot, their hoof action “stomps” grass seed and straw into the soil, and their waste products provide moisture and natural fertilizer.
Dorothea Farris, treasurer of the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association (CVEPA), says the area being reclaimed is in an area that is the habitat to all of Colorado’s high-elevation wildlife. It’s also recognized for wild land qualities, and recreational attractions and uses.
“Local ranchers use the area for summer grazing opportunities, preserving Colorado’s agricultural heritage in the Crystal River and Roaring Fork valleys. The goal of this project is to determine the best restorative procedures to use for long-term regeneration of vegetation in disturbed lands,” she says.
The partnership includes CVEPA, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), Coal Basin Cattlemen’s Association, Pitkin and Garfield counties, and five local municipalities.
Mid-Continent Coke and Coal Co. operated the mine near Redstone, CO, until it went bankrupt in the early 1990s. The Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety used Mid-Continent’s reclamation bond to begin restoration activities, but funds were depleted before the erosion could be fully addressed.
Colorado rancher Bill Fales lives 13 miles from the site. He knows firsthand the impact of the area’s soil erosion and provides cattle for the summer grazing activity.
“Forty years ago, that area was lush and beautiful, with an aspen grove and alpine meadow,” Fales says. “Mining activities turned it into a huge refuse pile from rock dug out of the mine that couldn’t be sold. Because reclamation of the site was never successful, when it rained, soil erosion there turned the river black. It’s been a terrible legacy of the mining era here, but I think we can fix it with the cattle.”
Ben Carlsen, a USFS range technician, has played a lead role in developing the project, which was first implemented in 2012.
“Because of all the rock piled there, no one’s ever successfully reestablished any vegetation,” Carlsen says. “We knew of a Nevada ranch couple who successfully restored a similar mine-tailings area back to grassland using a similar approach. One difference with our project is our addition of straw. As it decomposes, it provides organic matter for the soil, which improves soil water infiltration. It also helps reduce soil erosion from rains. We use eco-typic seed collected from the vicinity.”
The first year, the project included a 1-acre plot where seed and straw were applied before 87 head of cattle grazed hay for about 36 hours. In 2013, three 1-acre plots were each grazed for 12-18 hours by 240 head of cattle.
“We seeded and used straw cover in one of the 2013 plots, then let the cows forage existing grasses,” Carlsen says. “On the second plot, we seeded grass, covered it with straw and then grazed hay. On the third plot, we added a soil amendment that included composting component and biochar with the grass seed, straw and hay.”
According to the International Biochar Initiative biochar is a “solid material obtained from carbonization of biomass. It may be added to soils to help improve soil functions and reduce emissions from biomass that would otherwise naturally degrade to greenhouse gases. Biochar also has appreciable carbon sequestration value.”
Carlsen’s team didn’t see as much new grass on the site in spring 2013 as they had hoped. Dry conditions in 2012 probably had some impact. Their grazing project occurred in August and September, and some new seedlings, emerging in fall, likely succumbed to winterkill. Carlsen was also concerned that there wasn’t sufficient hoof action in the 2012 plot.
“If there isn’t enough hoof action disturbance, grass seed isn’t pushed into the soil enough to cause it to germinate,” Carlsen says. “Late August and early September isn’t the best time of year to put seed down.”
If the cow stomp succeeds in adequate restoration of native grasses, area ranchers will see reduced soil-erosion issues and have opportunity to use the land for grazing. However, they’re not the only benefactors of the project.
“Elk and deer frequent the area during spring and fall,” Carlsen says. “We’re also seeing an effective partnership between the local communities and organizations, as well as several conservation groups. We’re all working together for the ultimate goal of reclaiming the land and improving the area’s ecological health.”
Carlsen notes that communities in the area will benefit indefinitely from the restoration efforts.
“Family-owned ranches in this valley bottom are one of the things that attract visitors to this area,” Carlsen says. “If we don’t take steps to reclaim this land to help support these ranches, suburban-type development will begin taking over, which means the recreational space that people come here to enjoy will disappear.
“This isn’t the only area where rangeland needs to be reclaimed,” he adds. “There haven’t been many projects like this, but it may prove to be a viable means to accomplish restoration.”
Fales believes the projects could reshape public perception of ranchers like himself.
“I’m hoping these experiments help all of us learn how to use cattle to speed and enable healing damaged rangeland,” Fales says. “I think these test strips have already shown that resting the land for years wasn’t the answer to restoring it.”
Loretta Sorensen is a freelance writer based in Yankton, SD.
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