Here at Duke Farms, our mission to be a model of stewardship means that we are always looking for ways to demonstrate best management practices in the areas of wildlife habitat enhancement, sustainable farming, and implementation of natural systems to help address climate change. Today I would like to discuss our rotational grazing project, which seeks to address all three of these goals.
Some of the best grassland bird habitat in the state is found here at Duke Farms, particularly in our western farm fields. These grassland fields provide critical habitat to a suite of rare grassland birds which are among the most threatened wildlife found on the property. Understandably, these birds and the habitat they use are a top priority for our stewardship efforts.
New Jersey has very few native grasslands, but grassland birds have learned to use hayfields as nesting habitat. That works quite well until the first cutting of hay destroys nesting birds, or until hayfields are abandoned and woody vegetation takes over. Our first steps to manage this habitat included a delayed mowing regime; which protects nesting birds, and removal of woody vegetation; restoring over 500 acres of grasslands so that they now comprise a range of native warm season grasses of varying heights which provide critical nesting habitat for a suite of avian species. We also removed hedgerows to provide larger nesting areas and to minimize predation by raptors, which hunt from hedgerows and adjacent woodlands.
But long-term management of grasslands, even if occasionally harvested for hay, is a labor-intensive prospect that often requires the use of significant herbicides to prevent the grasslands from succeeding to scrub shrub and eventual woodlands. Clearly, we knew that we needed to find a better alternative. Our research and outreach efforts taught us that just as the native bison once maintained the Great Plains of the Midwest with their freelance grazing, we can now use cattle to rotationally graze our grasslands and thereby mimic the natural cycle which maintains grasslands. So with our own new and growing herd of cattle, we are beginning to implement a rotational grazing program where our cattle are frequently moved from pasture to pasture. The result, which we are monitoring closely, can provide optimal nesting habitat for grassland bird and grazing habitat for cattle. Additionally, we hope to add ecological weight to the growing consumer preference for free-range, grass-fed beef, which is not only more nutritious, but also much better for the environment than cattle raised in confined livestock operations. By leading through example, we also hope to demonstrate that rotational grazing is also a better economical way to produce beef.
Recent scientific research also indicates that properly managed grassland systems can store, or sequester, significant amounts of carbon in both the soils and in the deep-rooted grasses that make up this ecological community. This means that our cattle can not only help us to improve the grassland habitat, but also help us offset carbon emissions in a world where we desperately need to quickly find ways to do so.
Stay tuned for more information as this ecological experiment plays out here at Duke Farms.