Stocker harnesses power of bees for productive pastures
June 17-23, marked National Pollinator’s Week, a week-long event dedicated to celebrating the animals that help plants thrive. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “these hard-working animals help pollinate over 75 percent of flowering plants, and nearly 75 percent of crops. Often people may not notice the hummingbirds, bats, bees, beetles, butterflies, and flies that carry pollen from one plant to another as they collect nectar. Yet without them, wildlife would have fewer nutritious berries and seeds, and we would miss many fruits, vegetables, and nuts, like blueberries, squash, and almonds, not to mention chocolate and coffee – all of which depend on pollinators.”
Dave Steffen is a retired range management specialist and district conservationist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. He currently runs stocker cattle on grassland in Gregory County, S.D. While bees may be a pesky nuisance to some, Steffen recognizes the importance of caring for the entire system that makes grasslands thrive.
“I live on the farm that my grandfather homesteaded back in 1904 in Gregory County,” he said. “One of the goals and objectives that I have for this place is to get everything back to native grass – a lot of it was farmed, even though it was poor land. I’ve worked to get it back to native grass to run some yearlings on. Now, it’s all in grass. I don’t do any farming or haying; we just have cattle that graze. The last couple of years, I reduced my stocking rate a little bit because of the drought. Now, the grass is growing to beat the band. The rain sure helps.”
Steffen has observed some positive changes since putting his land back into native grasses.
“This year, what I’ve noticed is the wildflowers in the pastures are absolutely beautiful,” he explained. “So many more wildflowers have appeared this year. I see honeybees working the wildflowers. I always knew that they did to a certain extent, but not as much as I’ve seen going on this year. They have been everywhere. Then you start listening, and you hear this hum in the grass. The bees are all over in the pastures working.”
Steffen used to keep a few colonies of honeybees around for him and his kids to work on, and so he’s always been cognizant of having pollen and nectar sources like sweet clover and alfalfa, but he said that’s only a few of the sources that bees pollinate.
“The honey business is a big industry in South Dakota,” he said. “As a landowner, we want to bolster that. It’s amazing what chemicals will do. If there’s something we want to get rid of – like a weed, we can find a chemical that will do it. We put it on and think nothing of the damage that we are doing to the non-target species like the honeybees or beetles that do pollinate crops, without us even knowing they are doing it.”
He recommended target spraying or chopping the thistles and other weeds that might plague a pasture.
“It’s important to target spray,” he advised. “I don’t cover spray an entire pasture for musk thistles, unless it’s necessary because it also kills a lot of native legume plants. There’s a lot of things these chemicals impact – even the little bugs within the soil. The life in the soil starts to decline also, mainly because we ‘poisoned’ them, for lack of a better word. So, production goes down, and we wonder why. There’s a lot of things to keep in mind. I like to spot spray. I spend the month of June controlling thistles that way. I usually spot spray or chop the musk thistles.”
In order to not disturb the bugs and bees that are helping the grass to grow, Steffen said timing is important, as well.
“I like to spray early in the morning when the bees aren’t flying,” he added. “That helps a little bit. We really have a lot of chemicals that have a residual effect that impact life in the pastures. My best advice for those managing grasslands is to take the time to evaluate how big of a threat you have. Do you have to spray the entire area? Maybe there are ways to get around that. Explore the biological ways to fight the problem, so we don’t kill non-target species of plants and insects. The timing is really important, too. Early in the morning spraying when the wind is down is really important for the insects because they aren’t out moving as much as they would in the heat of the day.”