Examining the practical on-ranch application and benefits of low-stress herding and stockmanship techniques

Progress report for FW18-044

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2018: $19,980.00
Projected End Date: 10/31/2021
Grant Recipient: Diamond W Cattle Company
Region: Western
State: California
Principal Investigator:
Michael Williams
Diamond W Cattle Company
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Project Information

Abstract:

Managing the distribution of grazing livestock is critical to promoting sustainable ranching practice and sustainable ecosystems. Livestock are naturally selective in their foraging habits and do not graze pastures uniformly. In response, ranchers have long implemented practices intended to improve distribution on rangeland, such as installing off-stream water or cross-fencing. These practices, however, can be impractical or uneconomical at large spatial scales across rugged landscapes. As an alternative, stockmanship—or, the skillful handling of livestock in a safe, efficient, and low-stress manner—is another tool that can help address concerns over uneven utilization. More specifically, low-stress herding can be used to strategically place livestock within a pasture to ensure uniform utilization of forage and to avoid excessive use of sensitive resources.

Our project aims to establish the efficacy and practicality of using stockmanship and low-stress herding in a production setting. Using GPS collaring of cattle and transect monitoring, we expect to show that these practices can both improve ranchers’ profitability (by increasing the number of livestock per unit area) and positively support multiple ecosystem services (protecting water quality and sensitive riparian habitats, improving vegetation for wildlife habitat, and decreasing the risk of catastrophic wildfires). Additionally, on-ranch field days throughout the course of the project will introduce the basics of low-stress herding to regional producers and share ongoing, preliminary results. Our outreach is designed to maximize frequent interaction between project leaders and regional producers and to facilitate regular discussion. This project approach blends science and practice in what we expect to be an innovative method to transmit stockmanship and low-stress herding to producers in our region.

Project Objectives:
  1. Convene a two-day short course—bringing together academics, industry professionals, and private consultants—to introduce the principles and practices of herding and stockmanship to ranchers in the region.
  2. Establish experimental control and treatment pastures on a working ranch in Ventura County to measure the effectiveness of herding to improve livestock distribution across three growing seasons, beginning Fall 2018.
  3. Develop a set of practical metrics against which to measure the success and efficacy of applied practices.
  4. Hold at least two field days (Years 2 and 3) to demonstrate and extend the use of herding to improve livestock distribution to ranchers in the region.
  5. Publish materials (bulletins, online articles, and videos) to be distributed statewide, which would present the results from our experimental treatments, provide cost-analysis of the practice, and offer recommendations.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Dr. Ken Tate - Technical Advisor (Researcher)
  • Dr. Mark Trotter - Technical Advisor (Researcher)
  • Dr. Derek Bailey - Technical Advisor (Researcher)
  • Dave Voth - Technical Advisor (Educator)
  • Chris Schachschneider - Technical Advisor (Researcher)

Research

Materials and methods:

January 2019: We experienced some setbacks early in our grant execution process that we have since recovered from. An early challenge was that fire and drought meant that Mike Williams could not renew the lease on the ranch in Ventura County (Canada Larga) on which we planned to conduct our Western SARE project. Mike ranches on another 12,000-acre property in Los Angeles County and so we chose to move our project location there. The property in LA County (Ritter Ranch) has similar topography and vegetation as does Canada Larga, however there were far fewer internal, cross fences separating pastures. With fewer pastures, we needed to reconsider our study design. The Latin-square design we proposed initially required at least two large pastures with similar characteristics; Ritter Ranch really did not allow for this approach. After consulting with experts at UC Davis and Chico State, we settled on a different design: Year 1 would become our “control.” GPS tracking collars would be administered to cows on the ranch and field data would be collected but we would administer no herding treatments. Years 2 and 3 would be our “treatment” years: we would continue to collar cows and collect field data, and Mike would begin administering the herding treatment.

We spent April and May 2018 gathering supplies and building the GPS collars. Collars were applied to thirteen mother cows in late June 2018, which represents the beginning of data collection on the project. Cows will be managed from June 2018-June 2019 much as they have been in previous years. In July 2019, we expect to begin our herding treatment, which will consist of bunching and placing the cows every 3-5 days. In December 2018 (end of dry season) we collected fecal pat data at over sixty transects on the ranch that we stratified in areas of heavy and light use. We expect to continue that monitoring every six months.

We are planning on having our first workshop for ranchers in July 2019. The workshop will last two days and will gather experts, academics, and ranchers to showcase our SARE project and have them share techniques and experiences.

January 2020: Research and data collection is continuing much as planned. Thus far, we have collected GPS location data from the cows twice (December 2018 and July 2019) and expect to make our third collection this month, January-February 2020. The first two sets of collaring data tracks cows during our control year (Year 1) and this month's collection will represent the first GPS data since our treatment begun. The herding treatment was initiated in July 2019 and has continued to the present. In the intervening 6 months, 1-3 times/week cows are located, bunched, moved, and placed by horseback. Effort is made to place them in areas that have been identified as "low-use," in order to measure our success in augmenting distribution by our method. 

Fecal pat data has been collected across more than sixty sites on the ranch three times (December 2018, June 2019, December 2019). 

In July 2019, we held a very successful 3.5-day workshop that gathered over twenty academics, practitioners, and ranchers in Palmdale, CA on the Ritter Ranch to hear about our project, stockmanship principles, and to practice them horseback.

January 2021: We continue to have success executing the data collection component of our project. As originally proposed, we have continued to collar and collect GPS location data on cows in the treatment herd. In the last year, we have collected location data two additional times (March 2020 and July 2020) and expect to collect collar two more times (Feb/Mar 2021 and July 2021). Collecting data in July 2021 will represent three full years of collar data (one control year--Year 1--and two treatment years--Years 2 and 3). Herding treatments continue largely as originally conceived, however efforts have been targeted during the dry season (June-October) and during the rapid growth season for California annual grasslands (March-May). 

We continue to regularly collect fecal pat data across 64 sites twice annually. 

Research results and discussion:

January 2019: We currently have no results to share. Data collection is ongoing. We anticipate having our first results to report in December 2019.

January 2020: With only control year data available (Year 1), we have not yet processed the GPS collar data or compiled the fecal pat results. We decided that preliminary results will be far more compelling to share after we have concluded our first year of treatment (Year 2). 

January 2021: We still have not analyzed the GPS collar results or fecal pat data. Our goal is to start this process Spring 2021. 

Participation Summary
1 Farmer participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

1 On-farm demonstrations
1 Tours
1 Workshop field days
1 Other educational activities: Initiated filming for project video

Participation Summary:

5 Farmers
2 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

January 2019: Year 1 of our project has consisted entirely of getting our experimental research designed and initiated. Year 2 will focus more on outreach and extension. We have plans to hold a 2-day work workshop for ranchers in July 2019 and to publish a number of extension materials related to the project.

Our only effort at outreach thus far has been a poster at the California Cattleman's Association in November 2018. The poster was included in the poster session at the conference center, where over 300 ranchers were in attendance.

January 2020: We have been successful at initiating our outreach efforts in Year 2. Efforts have included: one popular press article in the farm advisor's newsletter (400+ reach), presentation to the Los Angeles County Cattlemen's Association, presentation to the annual meeting of the US Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, and conducting a 3.5-day stockmanship workshop with 20+ academics, practitioners, and ranchers (which included 2 days of instruction on horseback). Furthermore, our Western SARE project was selected by the US Roundtable for Sustainable Beef as an exemplary pilot project and has been advertised through their website and program.

January 2021: COVID has complicated our outreach and extension efforts. In our project application, we proposed that we would hold two "follow-up" field days in Spring 2020 and Spring 2021. We were unable to hold the Spring 2020 event due to stay-at-home restrictions and we expect the same will be true for the proposed Spring 2021 event. Instead, we made two changes. The first, is that we held a small "training" session for the most enthusiastic local producers in the area, led by stockmanship consultant Bob Kinford from Texas. This was held in July 2020. The second is that we engaged the services of a videographer. Our plan is--by project end--to produce a ~15min-long video explaining stockmanship and sharing results from our project. Ultimately, we believe this video will be an extremely effective extension tool and may actually achieve greater tractions, distribution, and visibility than our originally proposed workshops. Filming for the video began in July 2020 and will continue until July 2021. Our goal is to have the video ready for distribution by project's end, in October 2021.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.