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Cows for cleaner water

Minnesota ranchers and recreationalists find common ground with help from Extension RSDP

Sarah Kuschel, her husband, Miles, and their three children raise beef cattle on pasture in southern Cass County. “My family uses this ground, and we live, work and sleep here,” she says.

Kuschel is among many ranchers in an area of central Minnesota where water flows into the Pine River, to the Whitefish Chain of Lakes, and then the Mississippi River. The Pine River Watershed is an important drinking water source, supplying communities downstream including St. Cloud and the Twin Cities. The Whitefish Chain of Lakes also holds importance to locals and visitors who enjoy fishing, boating, beaches and hiking.

Area ranchers, recreationalists and environmental protection groups are recognizing their shared interest in protecting the region’s water quality. “It’s our responsibility to maintain the ground we’ve been given so it’s here for generations to come,” Kuschel says.

With help from the University of Minnesota Extension Central Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (Central RSDP) ranchers and others in Cass and Crow Wing counties are working together to safeguard their water resources. One important way of doing this is through sustainable practices for raising cattle.

“How animals are raised on the land matters,” says Jim Chamberlin, a Central RSDP board member and the food and water security program coordinator at Happy Dancing Turtle, a Pine River-based nonprofit. “Over-grazed pastures increase runoff, which leads to greater ‘bounce,’ or intensity in stream flow. This causes excess stream bank erosion and sedimentation.”

Central RSDP supported Graham Ambrose, a Humphrey School of Public Affairs graduate student, in researching business practices and market demand for beef products. Sustainably produced products can come with a higher price tag, requiring more labor and
operational changes.

One practice ranchers can use is rotational grazing. Livestock managed through rotational grazing increase the health of the soil, allowing for better infiltration and water-holding capacity and forage growth.

Ambrose’s research found that there is a strong local market for sustainably raised beef. “There are a lot of folks who are willing to pay more for beef if they know it will help protect their lake or river,” says Molly Zins, Central RSDP executive director. In fact, the research showed an even stronger market for local products.

Another issue is that without a processing facility in the area ranchers drive long distances to bring cattle to slaughter. Happy Dancing Turtle is developing a business plan to help ranchers consider mobile processing units that can help keep some of the 10,000 cows raised in Cass County every year within the area.

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