by Ryan Heinen, Land and Livestock Manager | As I write this, it’s a beautiful cool and sunny fall morning on Gwenyn Hill Farm. It’s my favorite time of year. I was out in the pastures rotating the beef cattle herd to a new paddock. I move them every day, and today I again noticed the group of eight bluebirds sitting on the fence. I had seen these birds over the last week, as they seem to be following the cattle. An eastern kingbird was also there for the same reason as the bluebirds. They are hunting for a meal of insects, using the fence as a perch, and flying off quickly to catch the insects that are drawn to the cattle.
While the work I do managing livestock and field crops is that of a farmer, in college I studied wildlife conservation and ecology. That’s also the career field I worked in prior to becoming a farmer. I think of myself as a conservation farmer and ecologist. Throughout the various conservation work I have done, I have seen how grazing livestock can be mixed with conservation to manage land, improve wildlife habitat, and restore native grassland and woodland ecosystems, all while raising the very best food for our health. It also creates a beautiful, healthy environment for people to enjoy, as well as the wildlife and livestock who live there.
On Gwenyn Hill Farm we have approximately 80 acres of mixed oak woodlands, many containing large ancient oak trees with huge sweeping limbs that stretch out from the main truck like massive arms held open to catch the sunshine. Unfortunately, we also have a thick tangled mess of invasive buckthorn growing in these woodlands, smothering out the oak trees and all of the native understory grasses, plants and shrubs. Some of these impressive oak tree limbs have been completely shaded out by the buckthorn and killed. These massive oaks historically would have developed under an oak savanna ecosystem which included a mix of grassland and woodland. Oak savanna is maintained by fire and large herds of grazing wildlife, such as bison. When the Williams family settled here these areas would have looked like perfect pastures, and were maintained by their herds of cattle and flocks of sheep. When livestock left the farm some 20 or 30 years ago, buckthorn and other invasive shrubs moved in. Now as I work to undertake the clearing out of this buckthorn and return these areas to a functioning ecosystem, we will be using chainsaws, a brush mower, and our new restoration crew of grazing cattle and sheep.
The other day I moved the cattle into a paddock that had one of these old oak trees surrounded by thick buckthorn. While the forage quality of the grasses and clover in this paddock was some of the best, the herd ignored it and immediately went over to the buckthorn and started eating the leaves, pulling them off like candy. The next day when I came back, the buckthorn was completely defoliated as high as the cattle could reach. I could now see through the thick patch of buckthorn, and the huge trunk of the oak tree shown through.
I love watching livestock graze, because they always surprise me with what they will eat. I watch and try to figure out why they are eating something, or why the plants, land and wildlife are responding in a particular way to the type of grazing or land management I am doing. Sometimes I don’t know why, as with the buckthorn. I guess in this case it doesn’t really matter, as long as they keep eating it. Over the coming years, cattle and sheep will be important, irreplaceable tools I will be using to help restore the ecological health of the land here on Gwenyn Hill Farm. I look forward to watching the livestock do this difficult work, all while producing the finest meat, wool, and environment for everyone and everything that calls this area home.