BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — Before the mid-1800s, large herbivores like elk and bison grazed what is now the Oak Openings Region, munching on native plants. Soon, visitors along Oak Openings Parkway will see a variety of cattle – including Black Angus, Beefmaster and Jersey cows – munching on the grass as part of a Metroparks Toledo land management project.
The Metroparks recently contracted with Black Swamp Cattle Company for a research project that includes cattle as part of its land management restoration. It’s a technique called patch burn grazing. Like controlled burns, grazing creates a disturbance that is needed to control grasses, which after decades of restoration are becoming too dense to support biodiversity. Structural diversity is especially critical to ground-nesting birds, said Metroparks chief nature resources officer Tim Schetter, a certified wildlife biologist.
Grazing animals tend to focus their feeding on the parts of the plant that grow low to the ground, primarily grasses, resulting in patches where native plants can then grow, Schetter explained. This is in contrast to browsers, such as white-tailed deer, who only eat the tops of plants and do not create these patches.
“There’s a lot more to it than just animals eating grass here,” said Ethon Pawlaczyk, owner of Black Swamp Cattle Company. “The goal is to control the grass growth and introduce diversity, and we’ll definitely see more birds because of the number of insects that will be attracted.”
The partnership is a win-win for Pawlaczyk’s cattle, who will be moved to different, small areas within the 10-acre property on a daily basis.
“It’s like the wildebeests you see on National Geographic specials. They stay in small, tight packs to protect them from predators, but they’re also able to graze more effectively – eating from every plant in a smaller area instead of just picking at the best grass in a larger area,” he explained. “The cattle harvest the top third of the plant, where the most solar energy is stored, and that offers great animal performance.”
The cattle also trample some of the plants into the soil, storing carbon, and fertilize the soil with manure and urine. Adding organic matter and carbon into the soil provides food for soil biology while increasing water infiltration and reducing runoff, Pawlaczyk said.
The more traditionally used continuous grazing method requires a lot of inputs, such as fertilizers and deworming treatments for the entire herd. As a trade-off, the cattle can be put out into larger pastures and not managed as closely. Pawlaczcyk uses management-intensive grazing, forgoing the fertilizers and mass deworming of the cattle – a practice that he said can be harmful for soil biology and is likely responsible for the disappearance of the dung beetle.
“Agriculture doesn’t have to be destructive to the environment. We can improve the environment and ecology and produce high quality food,” he said.
Standing at the corner of Oak Openings Parkway and Girdham Road, Pawlaczyk nodded toward the electronic fence surrounding the 10 acres. Starting with three units of two cow and calf pairs each, with the possibility of up to 25 animal units if needed.
“The area won’t be grazed down to nothing. There will still be habitat for wildlife. We’ll be moving and adjusting the cattle depending on the regrowth rates,” Pawlaczyk said. “My goal is to control grass growth and introduce diversity. We definitely will see more insects and more birds,” he said.
The deer will also be able to continue their browsing, as the low-voltage fence is at a height that even a fawn can clear. The lower wires are closer together to hinder coyote from getting through.
A Spencer Township native, Pawlaczyk grew up doing grain farming with his family, but eventually the operation dwindled to just him – with help from his dad. So, as he earned a mechanical engineering degree, he also started reading about management-intensive grazing. Black Swamp Cattle Company, founded in 2020, now offers non-GMO pasture-raised poultry and beef as well as land management through grazing.
The contract with the Metroparks extends through September. If successful, the Metroparks may expand the use of cattle grazing as an ecological tool in future years. In the meantime, the Metroparks will use the opportunity to talk to the public about land management techniques and how the work will benefit wildlife, Schetter said.
The Metroparks will receive one payment of $150 for rent of the property.