Managing Grassland Vegetation with Winter-Patch Grazing: Potential Benefits to Livestock and Wildlife

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2015: $199,294.00
Projected End Date: 09/30/2019
Grant Recipient: South Dakota State University
Region: North Central
State: South Dakota
Project Coordinator:
Dr. Patricia Johnson
South Dakota State University

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: grass (misc. perennial)
  • Animals: bovine


  • Animal Production: grazing management, rangeland/pasture management, winter forage
  • Education and Training: on-farm/ranch research
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity, habitat enhancement, wildlife
  • Production Systems: agroecosystems

    Proposal abstract:

    Rangelands account for 70% of the world’s land surface, and are critical to maintaining biodiversity of plant and animal species. However, traditional range management techniques that promote development of homogenous vegetation structure/composition are contributing to reduction of grassland bird habitat. Interspersion of diverse habitat types throughout a heterogeneous landscape is necessary to preserve habitat for grassland birds and other wildlife species, improve livestock production, and increase resiliency of rangeland to disturbances. The use of fire to create burned patches in the landscape has been shown to be an effective land and grazing management tool in improving heterogeneity in vegetation structure/composition and habitat for livestock and wildlife in the south and southwest. However, ranchers in the western region of NCR are very reluctant to burn due to costs, concerns about weed invasion, and potential for changes in carrying capacity. Using cattle to heavily graze patches in the winter may provide an alternative to patch-burn grazing. Objectives of this research are to evaluate winter-patch grazing on 1) heterogeneity in vegetation structure/composition, 2) cattle performance, and 3) habitat and use of pastures by grassland birds. This research will occur at 2 scales/intensities: 1) intensive, statistically rigorous data collection on a research station on small-scale pastures, and 2) extensive data collection on production-scale pastures on 2 ranches. Twenty percent of each treatment pasture on the research station and cooperator ranches will be heavily grazed in winter to create patches. Cattle will graze treatment and control pastures during summer. Data to be collected will include: 1) cattle weight gains and spatial use patterns, 2) patch and non-patch vegetation structure, composition, and utilization, and 3) quality of bird habitat and use by bird species. Learning and action outcomes include increased understanding of benefits of winter-patch grazing; adoption of winter-patch grazing practices by cooperator ranchers; and distribution of information about winter-patch grazing to ranchers and agency personnel. These outcomes are important for ranchers in the NCR region who own/manage private lands critical for grassland bird habitat for improving livestock production and avoiding Endangered Species Act limitations.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    The overall goal of this project is to determine the extent to which winter-patch grazing increases vegetation heterogeneity in northern mixed-prairie rangeland and measure the associated responses of grazing livestock and non-game birds. Research evaluating patch-burn grazing has been conducted in various locations throughout the Great Plains, including several studies funded by NCR SARE (LNC07-277, FNC04-496, and LNC06-271); however, our proposed research does not include the burning component. Considering that prescribed burning is not an accepted practice in large areas of the Northern Great Plains, we believe this research will provide an alternative that will be more accepted and more likely to be adopted by the regional ranching community.  Objectives of this research are to evaluate winter-patch grazing on 1) heterogeneity in vegetation structure/composition, 2) cattle performance, and 3) habitat and use of pastures by grassland birds.

    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.