Between the lichen-covered oak trees among the rolling green hills of Douglas County, pastures provide a home and food for goats, sheep and cows.
Without a conservation service from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, some of these pastures can become inundated with tangled, thorny blackberry bushes, 25-foot-high English hawthorn and other invasive species, leaving the land unusable.
With help from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, local ranchers Chad Furlong, Alex Appleman and Jeff Baxter have all battled the invasive brush to reclaim their land, re-plant it with better grass seeds and establish new fencing on once-wasted parts of their properties.
Appleman, who raises sheep and goats at Oak Apple Farm near Glide, said before he bought the property in 2011, it had not been actively managed and blackberry bushes had taken over the pastures.
“The first few years here the fields were not productive at all,” Appleman said. He said without funding and advice from the agency, it would have taken him years longer and cost him much more to take back his land and put it into production.
“We’ve got abundant and productive resources here to work with, it’s just that you’ve got to treat it right,” said David Chain, who retired Dec. 31 as a district conservationist for Douglas County. Chain helped advise and oversee each of the projects.
Chain said the agency pays up to $150,000 for each contract through its cost-share program, depending on how much work a rancher is planning to tackle.
“We help them put together a plan for how we’re going to attack it,” Chain said, adding the agency helps make the lands more productive. In his 14 years with the conservation service, he’s overseen about 160 contracts across the county.
Appleman used the program to help him clear invasive blackberries from his 11 acres of land, re-seed the area with nutrient-rich grass and set up fencing across the property to divide it into different pastures. He replaced a barn which had been completely covered in blackberries, built new structures to house his animals and installed water systems to reach each pasture.
At Baxter Ranch in Oakland, tall, thick masses of English hawthorn and other invasive species had overtaken many of the 1,500-acre cow pastures. After contracting with the conservation service, Baxter was able to bring in an excavator to take out the brush that was almost twice its size. Once he burned the piles, he replanted the field with rye grass and sub clover, and was able to produce his own hay from the field at the end of the second year.
Furlong said his sheep had only been eating the spots of good grass and leaving the invasive brush to grow before he entered the conservation service’s cost-share program in 2013. With those resources, he was able to clear away the blackberries, English hawthorn and poison oak, and set up fencing up and over the hills at his property between Roseburg and Glide.
Now, his 300 sheep, along with his cows and horses, are able to use about all of Furlong’s 500 acres. He said without this work, he wouldn’t have had enough space for the animals.
“I would have had to buy more property, so I just made the property I had better,” said Furlong, who also shears sheep for other ranchers.
The fencing allowed each of the ranchers to split up their land into different sections so they can concentrate their animals in one area at a time. This way, the goats, sheep and cows eat what the ranchers want them to eat, including any brush that starts to pop back up.
Appleman said some parts of the grass are like cake and others are like Brussels sprouts to his goats and sheep, so if he focuses the animals in certain areas, they’ll eat whatever is available — cake and sprouts alike — before they are rotated to a different part of the pasture.
The fencing also helps keep away predators like coyotes and cougars that have been known to pick off sheep in the area. Even if the predators end up sneaking under fencing on the ground, the ranchers are able to identify where they entered the pastures, which can ultimately help trappers catch the coyotes.
The three ranchers have also used the program to bring water to different parts of their pastures. Furlong was able to repair old springs and set up a pipeline, and now has water flowing to each pasture.
“If it wasn’t for the help from NRCS we wouldn’t have progressed in that as we did,” Baxter said.