Cattle. Sheep. Goats. When ranchers think about the creatures living on their land, their minds probably go to the livestock. But there’s a whole host of other species in residence — and how many are present could indicate the health of the landscape.
Pollinators — the insects and animals that carry pollen from one plant to another — are an integral part of our ecosystem. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 75% of the world’s flowering plants and about 35% of the world’s food crops depend on animal pollinators to reproduce.
But they’re important to ranchers with native grasslands, too. Will Moseley, an agriculture consultant for Noble Research Institute, shares three reasons why.
1. Where there’s pollinators, there’s biodiversity.
“If you’re interested in regenerative ranching, you’re interested in biodiversity,” Moseley says. “And pollinators are a good indicator of biodiversity.”
Simply put, biodiversity means resiliency.
“When we have more insects, many of those insects are going to be predators,” Moseley explains. “And those predators help control pests, naturally.”
Additionally, insects and pollinators are an important part of the food web.
“If there’s a species we’re interested in that is higher on that food chain — deer, turkeys, whatever — we need those insects to create healthy habitats and healthy populations of other critters,” Moseley says. “We need that base.”
2. There’s money to be made.
Some pollinators make financial sense, too.
Take the monarchs, for example. Not only do they offer an agritourism enterprise (people will come pay to see them), but there are federal dollars available for ranchers willing to manage for them. In 2017, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service updated its Conservation Stewardship Program to include incentives for farmers and ranchers who plant milkweed species – the only food source for monarch caterpillars – and other nectar-rich plants monarch butterflies need for energy before they migrate.
How We’re Tracking Monarchs on Our Ranches (And How You Can, Too)
During the monarchs’ reverse migration each fall, they need energy from flowering plants. Will Moseley, an agriculture consultant for Noble Research Institute, says in southern Oklahoma there’s no shortage of milkweed for their migration north — but flowering plants can be scarce for the fall migration back to Mexico.
So, as the Noble Ranches have transitioned to regenerative, staff have been particularly interested in what sort of habitat that mindset is creating for the iconic butterflies.
And the way they monitor it is easy to duplicate on any ranch.
“We just went out and walked a hundred yards and counted how many butterflies were within 5 meters on each side of us,” Moseley says. “Anyone who is interested can go out and walk and count.”
There’s even a website that will tell you when peak migration occurs in your area, he says.
“That allows you to narrow down your window and be efficient with your time,” Moseley explains.
He says watching the weather is also important.
“You’ll need to get ahead of a front,” he says. “That’s when they’ll stage. If you wait till after the front, they’ll be gone.”
Moseley says after one year of surveying, there’s one big takeaway.
“We saw butterflies where there were flowering plants,” he says. “If there were no flowers, there were no butterflies.”
3. Pollinators increase enjoyment from the land.
“They’re just so dang cool,” Moseley says, while admitting his bias. (The nature lover holds two wildlife degrees.)
He recalls a farm visit he and fellow ag consultant Jim Johnson went on a few years back, where the landowners had several dozen acres of crownbeard, also known as cowpen daisy.
“It was in the fall when the monarchs were migrating through,” he remembers. “And I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. As we walked out there, thousands of butterflies and bees were lifting off. It was almost a spiritual experience.”
Want more pollinators? Focus on the plants they need.
“When we talk about pollinators, we’re talking about pollinating plants,” Moseley says. “And most of what we’re talking about are flowers like cowpen daisy, gayfeather (blazing star) and Maximilian sunflower.”
He says ranchers can manage to optimize forbs and more diverse vegetative communities, something that’s already common on regenerative operations.
In short, it means not grazing the same way at the same time every year. It might mean varying times of prescribed burns, too. (Of course, reducing the usage of herbicides helps, too.)
And what’s good for the pollinators is good for the ranch.
New Beekeepers Offer Their Top Tips
Josh and Brook Gaskamp practice what they preach.
The duo, who both work for Noble Research Institute, run sheep. But they also recognize the importance of stacking enterprises.
When it came time to add another side business, the choice was clear — or perhaps golden brown.
“I like honey,” Josh says.
“So that’s why we got bees,” Brook adds.
Josh, who has a wildlife background, became increasingly interested in the pollinators and began chatting with coworkers Charlie Canny and Eric Dunn, along with reading about bees online. And then one day, he got his sign it was time to just start.
He was driving down the road one day when he saw a swarm of bees in a tree. Josh called Dunn, who said he’d be there in the morning with a box.
The first year, they didn’t produce. But the second year, one hive produced 60 pounds of honey. The Gaskamps gave it away to family and friends at Christmastime and began expanding. They now have four hives and sell what they don’t need.
Brook’s uncle raised bees when she was growing up, so she’d learned about the marketing side from him.
“I knew just enough to be dangerous,” she says with a laugh. “But there was some nostalgia there for me, and it just made good financial sense. We had invested in land, and this was an enterprise that was fairly low risk, but high reward.”
She says the demand for local honey is high, and most beekeepers find they have a pretty easy market. So far, they’ve sold all of theirs at the office, but have plans to expand as they grow the business.
While they’re still relative newcomers, they’ve learned a lot through their own trial and errors. Their best advice? 1) Get a mentor; 2) start small; 3) experiment till you find what works for you.
While it may be a small part of their operation, the couple agrees it’s one that makes a lot of sense.
“On a small farm or ranch, bees are perfect,” Josh says. “I am collecting a resource that came off my neighbor’s land. Nobody owns the bees. They’re a public resource. But they travel to other properties looking for nectar and bring it back to me.”
Note: This article is part two of three in our Wildlife Watch series about monitoring and managing wildlife on regenerative ranches.