Cattle as Partners in Conservation: Ecological, Economic, and Social Outcomes of Public-Private Partnerships on Colorado Landscapes

Progress report for GW20-214

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2020: $24,727.00
Projected End Date: 07/31/2022
Host Institution Award ID: G235-21-W7902
Grant Recipient: Colorado State University
Region: Western
State: Colorado
Graduate Student:
Major Professor:
Dr. Stacy Lynn
Colorado State University
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Project Information


Conceptualizing cattle as partners in conservation would be a win-win for the livestock and rangeland conservation sectors, resolving the [often] paradoxical objectives of food production and natural resource management. For millennia the ecology of grasslands, characterized by high quality forage and profuse biodiversity, has supported large herds of herbivores. In turn herbivory has contributed to the maintenance of those ecosystems [1, 2]. However, a debate over the use of government-owned rangelands for cattle grazing is ongoing at local, national, and global levels [3-7]. Amplifying the issue for conservationists and livestock producers alike is the notion that more land is used to raise cattle than is used for all other agricultural production combined [8].

To learn more about the collaborative grazing management that occurs across Colorado’s rangelands, we will conduct a holistic investigation of four partnerships between private ranchers and government-owned land managers. We will evaluate three system components - ecological, economic, and social - to answer our overarching question: How do strategic grazing partnerships on multi-use public landscapes achieve the dual goals of assisting land management agencies with natural resource conservation, and ranchers with maintaining sustainable beef production?

Themes to be explored include soil health, biodiversity, forage quality, ecosystem services, and the human dimension (socio-cultural values). Results will be used to support collaborating ranchers and government-owned lands agencies by informing how cattle may be managed as tools for conservation while producing a sustainable food product. We will also create an integrated agent-based model to broaden applicability to collaborative rangeland management efforts in other regions.

Project Objectives:

            The following objectives incorporate variables relevant to the model of sustainability. The three ecological objectives include soil, biodiversity, and forage quality studies. Soil organic carbon and nitrogen, water infiltration, biodiversity, and forage quality are well established indicators of rangeland health and sustainable agriculture. In a time when climate change is an imminent threat, carbon sequestration and nitrogen management also provide solution-focused strategy for mitigation.  The socio-economic objective investigates stakeholders’ valuation of ecosystem services produced by collaborative conservation. Evaluating socio-cultural values as drivers of decision-making provides a method of emerging importance in sustainability science [33-38].

  1. Examine the outcomes of collaborative grazing management on soil health as measured by levels of a) organic carbon, b) nitrogen, and c) water infiltration, over a 2-year period.
  2. Examine the outcomes of collaborative grazing management on above-ground biodiversity as measured by a) plant species diversity (richness and evenness), and b) composition (functional groups), over a 2-year period.
  3. Examine the outcomes of collaborative grazing management on forage nutritive quality as measured by a) crude protein, b) acid detergent fiber, and c) neutral detergent fiber, over a 2-year period.
  4. Identify and evaluate the unique sets of values and perceptions toward ecosystem services among collaborative grazing management stakeholders and investigate how the prioritization of these values drive dynamic decision-making.

            This project will be completed in partial fulfillment of a PhD program for the graduate student applicant. Therefore, the 2-year Western S.A.R.E. grant timeline encompasses only a portion of the entire program (Figure 5). The project officially started with the academic semester of Fall 2019. For the first 2 academic years, the graduate student will complete required coursework at Colorado State University, in addition to carrying out the research objectives illustrated in the chart below. During the first 2 years, 16-28 stakeholder interviews will be conducted (Objective 3) and bi-annual meetings with producers will also take place in order to report on, evaluate, and discuss research progress. During months following the completion of interviews, transcription and coding of the interviews will take place. During the period of peak vegetative growth, July-September of 2020 and 2021, ecological data including soil, vegetation,and forage samples will be collected (Objectives 1, 2, & 3). In months following each of these data collection periods, samples will be sent for lab analysis. During peak recreation season, June-September of 2020 and 2021, public recreationer surveys will be conducted on each of the 4 study sites (Objective 4). Although the term of this grant will end July 31, 2022, the graduate student will continue processing and synthesizing data throughout the year 2022, within which time she will be completing her dissertation, presenting her results to stakeholders and at professional conferences, and pursuing publication as described in the other sections of this proposal. 


Figure 5. Three-year timeline of graduate student research plan and deliverables. Although the S.A.R.E. grant will span from August 1, 2020-July 31, 2022, prior months in 2020 and remaining months in 2022, are also noted on the timeline to portray the broader scope of the student’s program.



Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • William Altenburg - Producer
  • Chase Dryden - Technical Advisor
  • Justin Fredrickson, BS - Technical Advisor
  • William Hogan - Producer
  • Quinn McElwee - Producer
  • Dr. Ryan Rhoades, PhD (Researcher)
  • Nick Trainor, MS - Producer
  • William Woolston - Technical Advisor


Materials and methods:

To learn more about the collaborative grazing management that occurs across much of Colorado’s Rocky Mountain rangelands, we are conducting a holistic investigation of four partnerships between private ranchers and government land managers on the Northern Front Range over a 2-year period. Our research process addresses the stewardship of these rangelands as complex social-ecological systems where livestock production and natural resource conservation are woven together in a tapestry of management, culture, and science. We will quantitatively and qualitatively evaluate three system components - ecological, economic, and social.

At this point in time, I have completed 1.5 field seasons of ecological data collection on four Colorado Northern Front Range multi-use conservation areas that include cattle grazing leases in their management plans: Coalton Trailhead Open Space in Boulder County, Soapstone Prairie and Coyote Ridge Natural Areas in Larimer County, and Lowry Ranch in Arapahoe County.

The following methods have been followed:

Ecological Component: Field Sampling

A total of six, 50 m linear transects will be identified on each of the 4 study sites. At least 4 transects will be randomly located in areas under current grazing management (grazed transects), and 2 transects will be located in areas that have been excluded from cattle grazing for a minimum of 5 consecutive years (excluded transects). Transect locations will be selected based on similarities of slope and soil texture across study sites and will be placed with adequate distance, at least 20 m, to fence lines or water troughs to reduce the effects of heavier hoof traffic around those areas. A partnering soil scientist from the National Resource Conservation Service (USDA) will conduct expert in-depth soil profile analyses to verify biological consistency across transect locations. Soil and plant species data will be collected during peak vegetative growth for 2 consecutive years (2020 and 2021). Forage quality data will be collected once per year in early summer, just prior to the scheduled grazing season for 2 consecutive years (2020 and 2021).

Soil: To test the hypothesis that collaborative grazing management on public lands will improve soil health as indicated by levels of organic carbon, nitrogen, and water infiltration, samples will be collected to a 20cm depth, using a 8.25 cm diameter soil auger. Soil cores will be extracted from one random location within a 25 cm x 25 cm quadrat placed at 10 m intervals on alternating sides of each transect and at a 1 m minimum distance from the transect. Each core will be divided into 2 sub-cores 0-10 cm and 10-20 cm to be processed individually for a total of 10 subsamples per transect (5 at each depth).

Water infiltration will be calculated using the single-ring infiltrometer method to test the hypothesis that grazing management on public lands will improve hydrologic function. A 15.24 cm diameter ring will be placed along each transect at 10 m intervals, within each soil sampling quadrat, for a total of 5 subsamples per transect. Using a graduated cylinder, 440 mL of water will be poured into the ring to create a 2.54 cm depth. Infiltration rates will be measured as depth of water per unit of time.

Biodiversity: To test the hypothesis that collaborative grazing management will improve above-ground biodiversity, the Daubenmire cover class method will be used to collect data on plant species richness, evenness, and composition by functional group. Along the right side of each 50 m transect a random point between 0-100 cm will be selected for the placement of the first 20 cm x 50 cm frame. Consecutive frames will be placed every 1 m thereafter for a total of 50 subsamples per transect. The rectangular frames will be placed perpendicular to the transect to improve capture of biological variability. Canopy cover class will be determined in each frame, and the mean value of each class range will be entered into statistical analysis. Bare ground, litter, and manure will be notated in sampling when applicable. Standardized photo points will be taken at each transect end looking toward the transect, and over every 5th Daubenmire frame from a 1 m height.

Forage Quality: To test the hypothesis that collaborative grazing management will improve forage nutritive quality as indicated by 3 components (crude protein, acid detergent fiber, and neutral detergent fiber), 6 forage quality samples will be collected within 0.25 m x 0.25 m frames at 8 m intervals, alternating sides of the transect and 2-10 m from each transect. All standing biomass rooted within the frame will be clipped at ground level. Each sample will be stored in individual paper bags.

Ecological Component: Lab/Data Analysis

Soil: Samples will be stored in individual bags, air-dried for a minimum 2 weeks, then finely ground using a mechanical porcelain pestle. Samples will be analyzed for percent total carbon and percent total nitrogen as determined by combustion analysis using LECO instrumentation available in Colorado State University’s (CSU) NREL EcoCore facility. Inorganic carbon will be analyzed using the Modified Pressure-Calcimeter Method. Percent inorganic carbon will be subtracted from total carbon to determine percent organic carbon. Raw data from quadrats will be treated as subsamples and averaged across each transect. T-tests will be used to compare estimates of soil organic carbon, nitrogen, and water infiltration rates in grazed versus ungrazed areas, within and between study sites, for each year of data collection.

Biodiversity: Raw data from Daubenmire frames will be treated as subsamples and averaged across each transect. Canopy cover class data will be used to characterize plant species composition by functional group (i.e. exotic vs. native species, graminoids vs. forbs). Nonmetric Multidimensional Scaling (NMDS) with environmental and management variables will be fit to ordination plots comparing plant community composition in grazed and ungrazed areas within and between the 4 study sites. The Shannon diversity index will be used to characterize biodiversity using plant species richness and evenness estimates. Effect size will be used to compare biodiversity indices in grazed versus ungrazed areas, within and between study sites, for each year of data collection.

Forage Quality: Samples will be oven-dried at 55°C for a minimum of 3 days, ground to pass through a 1-mm sieve using a Wiley Model 4 grinder. These finely ground samples will then be analyzed with Near Infrared Reflectance Spectroscopy (NIR) using a Spectrastar XT 2600 XT-R, Reflectance monochromator (680 –2600 nm) with Rotating Top Window Configuration built in Windows 7 computer with 17" touch screen, UScan software, with multi cup adapter and ISI ring cup/powder cup adapter.  NIR will be calibrated for detection accuracy using the results of a sample subset analyzed by wet chemistry.  Sample preparation and NIR analyses will be conducted in CSU’s Department of Animal Sciences’ Nutrition Lab.

The economic and social components of our study are being explored through a human dimensions approach combining two methods that are established in the literature of social-ecological systems, Q-methodology and system dynamics modeling. The synthesis of these two methods will provide a novel application, integrating the human dimension of natural resource management through the use of stakeholder-driven research and the creation of social narratives. The goals of combining these methods are to: 1) integrate stakeholder-derived values and knowledge into the research process, 2) increase contextualization of the research results for relevancy and reduce researcher bias, 3) elucidate diverse values inherent in collaborative conservation, 4) understand the social-ecological complexities in collaborative grazing systems and their influence on ecosystem services (sometimes referred to as “nature’s contributions to people”) management, and 5) develop an applied, context-specific, and dynamic tool to aid stakeholders in consensus-building, co-learning, and collaborative decision-making.

To capture the dynamics of management and decision-making from the perspectives of diverse stakeholders within these collaborative grazing systems, we are including from each site: 2-4 rancher/cattle managers, 5-6 land agency partners, and 4-6 community member recreationers. Stakeholder participants were recruited using purposive sampling, a nonprobability technique appropriate for in-depth research pertaining to complex socio-cultural domains. Q-methodology and system dynamics modeling are the vehicles to engage stakeholders in the investigative process. We are currently initiating Step 5 of the 6-Step Q-methodology process:

1.  Develop Q concourse. An initial questionnaire will be used to collect information for the development of the Q concourse. The researcher will also use other expert knowledge and background research to formulate the Q concourse, where statements will be organized into 3 ecosystem services categories: material, nonmaterial, and regulating. These categories coincide with recent ecosystem service valuation theory and have been adapted to the context of this study.

2.  Refine Q set. The Q concourse will then be condensed by the researchers to the final Q set of statements. While the Q set will be organized and analyzed in the context of ecosystem services and nature’s contributions to people, researchers will use language that is accessible to a diverse stakeholder group, so that the concepts are framed in non-technical, non-scientific language, and accessible to a broad spectrum of participants.

3.  Facilitate Q sort. The 3rd step will entail the Q sort process, where each stakeholder will have the opportunity to complete their unique prioritization of statements and rank relative values from the Q set. The Q sort will be facilitated either by individual video conference or written instruction, allowing each stakeholder to focus on his/her own opinions and perspectives.

4.  Conduct Exit Interviews. Within four weeks of the Q sort process, semi-structured exit interviews with be conducted with each Q participant so that more details about each unique Q sorting process can be understood and clarified. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, interviews will be conducted by phone or video conference.

5.  Perform Factor Analysis. The Q sorts will then be analyzed by the researcher using factor analysis and the software, MQMethod . This will illuminate how various values are prioritized among stakeholders. The factor analysis will also demonstrate which ecosystem services are valued similarly or dissonantly among stakeholders. Examining the prioritization of the 3 ecosystem services categories (material, nonmaterial, regulating) will add a thematic dimension to the interpretation of the results, answering the question: “Do stakeholders tend to place higher value on ecosystem services that are material, non-material, or regulating?” This step will be important in understanding the value basis for management decision-making.

6.  Interpret and Create Social Narrative. The final Q step will entail the presentation of factor analysis results to each stakeholder group. With facilitated discussion of Q results, stakeholders will be encouraged to create a social narrative, incorporating areas of discord and consensus. This narrative will be used to identify dynamics and interactions among ecological, economic, and social values within the stakeholder group that will then be used for system dynamics modeling. This final step will take place at least 1 year after the commencement of Q-methodology. If COVID-19 restrictions are lifted by that time, this step will be facilitated in-person. If not, then an online platform will be chosen.


Research results and discussion:

My field season and data collection for the ecological and socio-economic components of my study have not yet been completed. Therefore, I do not have results and discussion to report this year. At this time, I can simply report that all field work is going very well. There have been no interruptions nor obstacles to my methods. I am very excited to start the process of analyzing data and eager to retrieve results from this long 2-year process. 

Participation Summary
10 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

8 Consultations
4 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 Webinars / talks / presentations
3 Other educational activities: 1. Survey requiring participants to reflect on their socio-cultural values around the management of government-owned multi-use lands
2. Sorting exercise asking participants to reflect on their prioritization of land and cattle management issues.
3. One-on-one interviews with above participants to further discuss their attitudes, opinions, and beliefs around the management of government-owned lands.

Participation Summary:

10 Farmers
30 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Over the past year, my project was used as a platform for multiple education and outreach activities. These activities ranged from academic presentations to one-on-one meetings with study participants. 

The first activity involved a poster presentation at the Colorado State University Graduate Student Showcase. My poster presentation can be accessed here: The poster highlighted the uniquely holistic research design demonstrated by my study, which integrates the ecological, social, and economic elements of collaborative grazing management. The oral presentation associated with my poster was regarded highly by the judges and awarded me a finalist position in the "3 Minute Thesis" fellowship contest sponsored by the Office of the Vice President for Research. My entry in this video contest can be accessed here: Based on my performance in this contest, I was awarded a fellowship for the upcoming academic year. 

In 2021, I entered my project into a virtual poster symposium for the Front Range Student Ecology Symposium. It was a unique opportunity to create an academic poster on a virtual multimedia platform, and I was able to engage in excellent dialogue with fellow students around my poster topic. My poster may be accessed here:

A final education and outreach tool that I created last year was an ArcGIS Story Map, which can be accessed here: This publicly available educational tool describes the purpose, methods, results, and conclusions of a forage productivity and quality analysis, which was conducted on my four study sites. While I am currently collecting on-the-ground data on these sites (as per my project methods), I felt it important to also explore similar rangeland health indicators using remote sensing and geospatial data analysis tools. It was a very insightful endeavor, and I hope to combine it with my field data for a more comprehensive perspective on my study sites in my final report.

 This past spring I was also given the opportunity to present my research to an undergraduate class at CSU. This class focused on the development of research and scientific combination skills for students interested in graduate school or field work. 

Additionally, I met with each of my 8 rancher/producer and land agency research partners to discuss the upcoming grazing season. I consulted with each of them on research progress thus far, as well as next steps and approaches to grazing management this summer. 

Finally, I maintained direct contact with 40 research participants through a 3-step process involving the collection of qualitative data using Q-Methodology. These 3 steps included a written survey, a sorting exercise, and a one-on-one interview used to further discuss and clarify their responses to the survey and sorting exercise. Participants represented each of 3 stakeholder groups: rancher/producers, government land agency partners/conservationists, and community volunteers/recreationers. Nearly all participants provided feedback on this process expressing how much it inspired them reflect on the root of their values and beliefs as well as the complexities of government-land management regarding multi-use and agricultural objectives. My contact with these participants will continue throughout the next academic year, and COVID-pending, we will host a workshop/focus group with participants next spring to disseminate research results and discuss learning opportunities, application, and next steps. 

In the upcoming year I will also be presenting my research at a workshop/field day at one of my study sites, Lowry Ranch. The Quivira Coalition is hosting this workshop, and it is expected to be attended by key figures in the industry. I am also currently preparing a proposal to present my research project at the Society for Range Management Annual Meeting, 2022. I hope to have the opportunity to present in their "Ignite Session." 

I intend to take advantage of other research communication and outreach activities that become available throughout the next year. I was awarded a fellowship in 2 CSU programs, the Office of the Vice President for Research and the School of Global Environmental Sustainability, for the upcoming academic year. Both of these programs will involve monthly workshop and training meetings, where I will gain further experience in networking and communicating my research to broader audiences.  I am discovering that there is immense interest in the concepts explored by my project, and I am energized by the momentum building around these important themes. 






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