Specifying and Analyzing Whole-Ranch Systems for Sustainable Range Livestock Production in Environmentally Sensitive Areas

1991 Annual Report for LW91-024

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1991: $290,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1993
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $211,650.00
Region: Western
State: Montana
Principal Investigator:
Jack Riesselman
Montana State University

Specifying and Analyzing Whole-Ranch Systems for Sustainable Range Livestock Production in Environmentally Sensitive Areas


Economic analysis of ten ranches from the plains and foothill's region of Montana to determine the profitability of sustainable practices, analyze existing enterprises and determine the feasibility of additional sustainable practices. A sociological analysis identifying factors influencing the adoption of sustainable agricultural production practices.

Inventory condition and trend of vegetation and soil resources, analyze livestock selection, management and marketing practices and animal performance levels, analyze seasonal and yearlong forage supplies with livestock and wildlife demand and determine potential strategies of agricultural diversification. Evaluate microbial degradation of grain straw to enhance feed value and evaluate chaff catchers to reduce winter feeding costs.

Compare riparian vegetation, fish habitats, and fish populations along streams having different riparian management practices, analyze impact of wintering and calving livestock on riparian vegetation, stream banks, and fish habitat. Quantify the use pattern of wildlife ungulates on winter pastures and hay fields, determine the impact of cattle grazing on deer and antelope use of pasture and hay land, determine preferred forage for wildlife ungulates in the study area.

Demonstrate the establishment and productivity of alfalfa varieties, determine the economic feasibility of using fertilizer to increase yields on old alfalfa fields, determine the impact of fall and spring grazing on alfalfa mortality and subsequent yield and determine if sustainable practices used in forage production have a positive influence on plant health.

Determine the ability of sheep or herbicides to limit the spread of leafy spurge from small, distinct populations, determine the rate and spread of leafy spurge controlled with either sheep or herbicides, assess the cost of stopping the spread and develop and conduct educational programs to assist landowners in implementing control programs with sheep.

Abstract of Results
Utilizing a multi-disciplinary approach numerous variables were scientifically evaluated to determine their role in the sustainability of Western range livestock production systems. Up to twenty two enterprises from two Montana regions were used to develop the data base.

Financial sustainability is obviously the most critical parameter affecting the sustainability of this industry. Data gathered show animal unit (AU) investment ranging from $2150 to $2500 per AU with an average 400 AUs per unit. Debt to asset ratio's average 7.84 and 11.5 percent in the two study areas. All ranches were determined to be profitable and most were financially sustainable. However, if debt loads were to approach 40 percent, financial sustainability would be jeopardized on most ranches.

Competition for resources by wild ungulates are perceived to play a role in range livestock sustainability. Seasonal use patterns for Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), hayland (alfalfa), dryland wheat, upland and bottom land pastures were established. Alfalfa was preferred during most seasons. Based on survey data and estimated $864 (+/-$143) loss was incurred by each ranch operation, statewide. Respondents enrolled in CRP incurred less damage.

Riparian studies determined that grazing management schemes incorporating high bank stability and riparian vegetation vigor were the most sustainable when compared to other stream characteristics. Over-wintering livestock in riparian areas was found to negatively impact woody vegetation and subsequently other stream characteristics.

Noxious weed invasion and subsequent herbicide use relative to resource sustainability concerns all ranchers. Data gathered from ranch units utilizing sheep show that certain weeds like leafy spurge can be effectively controlled by grazing whereas other species may require herbicide use to sustain the resource.

On ranch, cooperator assisted, research trials were used to evaluate the imports of alfalfa varieties on stand establishment, fertility requirements, and stand longevity. Alternative weed management methods were also researched on established alfalfa stands. These individual practices were aimed at increasing the total production of hay or the limited land resource bases these ranches have for the production of harvested roughages.

Potential Contributions
Recognized value of big game by viewing it as a resource rather than a detriment to sustainability. Big game is responsible for 1.8 million dollars spent in a two county area with a net population of approximately 5,000 people.

Ranchers are more aware of the effects of their management inputs on the environment, based on range site and condition studies, in the northern great plains.

In-depth economic analysis of cooperating ranches has resulted in better management and record keeping for numerous operations in the west.

Cooperators more fully recognize better management of winter feed, alfalfa, is important in maximizing sustainable inputs.

Ranchers have learned that management of riparian habitat is important in total sustainability of the resource.
Rural communities more fully recognize the importance of sustaining a profitable range livestock industry.
Cooperators, as well as other ranchers, have improved understanding of the sustainability concepts.
Recommendations that will arise from this study regarding sustainable practices will be made from scientifically tested results.
Reported in 1995