Facilitating Grazing Partnerships on Wisconsin’s Public Grasslands: Assessing Plant Communities and Developing Best Practices

Project Overview

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2016: $9,607.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2017
Grant Recipient: University of Wisconsin-Madison
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Randall Jackson
University of Wisconsin-Madison


  • Additional Plants: native plants
  • Animals: bovine
  • Animal Products: dairy


  • Animal Production: grazing management, range improvement, grazing - rotational
  • Education and Training: extension, focus group, networking
  • Natural Resources/Environment: wildlife
  • Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems, partnerships, social capital, social networks, sustainability measures

    Proposal abstract:

    Rotational grazing partnerships between public land managers and private cattle producers offer the potential to maintain and improve public grasslands while increasing the profitability of grass-fed beef and dairy. While recent constraints on public land management in Wisconsin have allowed detrimental encroachment of woody and non-native plants on state grasslands, research has shown that rotational grazing can reduce woody species, enhance soil and water quality, and improve biodiversity. Grazing is increasing in popularity among livestock producers in Wisconsin, but land access remains a significant barrier for beef and dairy operations, particularly for beginning farmers. Improved understanding of rotational grazing and its effect on plant communities, soil properties, and the potential socioeconomic pitfalls and opportunities of grazing partnerships will provide critical insights for grassland conservation, producer profitability, and many ecosystem services. As part of an interdisciplinary research team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, my goals are (1) to characterize plant and soil attributes on public grassland sites and (2) to develop and recommend a set of best practices for public-private partnerships in agricultural research, and to evaluate the adoption and utility of those practices. This work is part of a five-year collaboration between UW-Madison, land managers from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR), and private cattle producers to explore grazing management on Wisconsin’s public grasslands.  Conducting ecological and social research simultaneously will provide unique and valuable information about the success of producer partnerships in research and public land management. Mapping plant communities and soil quality will inform conservation goals and cattle grazing plans, while developing best practices will manage the needs, interests, and expectations of the partnerships around those plans. The focus on outreach and dissemination of project findings will encourage input, critique, and collaboration between producers and public institutions. This research will contribute to supporting new agricultural opportunities for farmers, improving environmental quality, maintaining critical grassland habitat for wildlife and public recreation, and developing educational literature on conservation agriculture and evaluation for future partnerships.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Results from this two-part research project will contribute to assessing rotational grazing as a feasible land management tool in the Upper Midwest. The primary outcomes are (1) increased knowledge of the dominant plant communities and soil conditions across a spectrum of public grasslands, and (2) development a set of best practices and evaluation tools to assess the actions of the project partners. From these two primary aims, there are four learning outcomes and two action outcomes that follow:

    In the short term, the learning outcomes from the ecological data collection will (1) establish baseline characterization of plant communities and soil quality on public lands to inform grazing plans and monitor spatial and compositional changes under different types of management, and (2) calibrate and validate remotely-sensed images for maps and models of these lands to predict future changes. The best practices data collection will (3) document the goals and expectations of the producers, land managers, and researchers involved in pilot grazing projects while improving dialogue and inclusive decision-making, and (4) will help establish a set of best practices for the remainder of the five-year project.

    For the short term action outcomes of this research, the ecological and social data will foster discussion between land managers, graziers, and researchers, provide material for local and national outreach events, and inform decision-making for the five-year project. In the long term, the research will expand the use of grazing with best practices as a successful and profitable management tool on public lands.

    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.