Using Cattle to Rehabilitate Rangeland Vegetation and Improve Ecosystem Function (3 yr project)

Project Overview

Project Type: Professional + Producer
Funds awarded in 2010: $49,936.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: Western
State: Colorado
Principal Investigator:
Kathy Voth
Livestock for Landscapes

Annual Reports


  • Additional Plants: native plants
  • Animals: bovine


  • Animal Production: feed/forage, grazing management, pasture renovation, preventive practices, range improvement, grazing - rotational
  • Education and Training: demonstration, farmer to farmer, networking, participatory research, workshop
  • Farm Business Management: feasibility study
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity, habitat enhancement, soil stabilization, wildlife
  • Pest Management: cultural control
  • Production Systems: agroecosystems
  • Soil Management: soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems, partnerships, public policy, urban/rural integration

    Proposal abstract:

    This three-year project demonstrates managed cattle grazing as a tool for maintaining and/or improving ecosystem function on degraded rangelands. It is distinctive because it focuses on the use of cattle trained to include invasive species in the their diets, along with high stocking densities to: 1) improve the water cycle, nutrient cycling and energy flow, 2) prevent erosion, 3) reduce invasive species, and 4) increase native plant density, cover and production. For ranchers, this demonstration will provide useful examples, vetted by fellow-producers, for managing their cattle to improve ecosystem and rancher sustainability. At the same time it will also improve agriculture preservation efforts, particularly on open space and near urban areas, by demonstrating that ranching activities provide important ecosystem benefits. Our demonstration area is a 500 acre pasture owned by Boulder County and managed as open space with a mandate for preserving native ecosystems and providing opportunities for recreation and agriculture. It has been impacted by almost a decade of drought, an extended period of occupation by prairie dog colonies, and years of invading non-natives, particularly bindweed, mustard, diffuse knapweed, dalmatian toadflax, musk and Canada thistle. Wildlife is important to residents of the county, including prairie dogs. A prairie dog colony covered about 200 acres of this pasture until 2009 when plague reduced the population to almost zero. Prairie dog contributions to the pasture's problems can be seen in increased invasive species and severe erosion. An important aspect of the project is to explore the use of "Mob Grazing" as a tool for improving ecosystem function and increasing forage production. Pastures are stocked at the equivalent of 1600 head per acre, and animals are moved when they have "eaten half and trampled half." The purpose of this level of impact is to increase soil organic matter and nutrient cycling and improve the water cycle by incorporating vegetative material into the soil surface and amending it with manure and urine. Practitioners, including University of Nebraska Extension Specialist Terry Gompert, say that mob-grazed pastures show an increase in soil-organic matter of 450% in just a few years, as well as increases of up to 200% in native and forage species production. Whether these gains can be extrapolated to the arid west is not yet known. In addition, current mob grazing systems require intensive management of animals, with some operators moving cattle twice a day or more, something that may not be as possible with these local ranchers. Traditionally, producers have run a series of smaller herds of cattle on scattered pastures, grazing them season-long. We hope to demonstrate avenues for combining herds on larger pastures to accomplish similar results within time frames that accommodate labor constraints in this area. This project will provide firsthand examples of the kinds of stock densities that work best in more arid regions and how they affect forage and livestock productivity. The project begins in the spring of 2010 with a meeting of city and county open space staff and participating ranchers. NRCS staff will conduct a "Rangeland Health Assessment" training for all participants. The demonstration will begin in mid-June of 2010, just before cattle are moved to the pasture. The pasture will be divided into 4 sections. Each section will be divided into 3 separate demonstration areas. One area will be grazed with the usual density, the second will be a high density plot (sometimes called "Mob Grazing") and the third will be a control plot. Rangeland health assessments, water infiltration tests, and repeat photo monitoring will be conducted on all areas of all sections before grazing begins and again when the grazing season is completed. Participating ranchers will be part of the demonstration pasture health assessment team and will conduct the same assessments and photo monitoring on their own pastures as well. We will also track animal unit days of forage consumed in the various areas and place a data logger on site to monitor environmental conditions during the growing season to aid in interpreting results between years. Cattle for the grazing project will be provided by Albert and Leo Hogan and Bill Hogan for the first year. These cattle have been trained to graze diffuse knapweed and dalmatian toadflax and in 2009 they grazed a wide variety of invasive species in this same pasture including: bindweed, horehound, wormwood sagewort, louisiana sage, cutleaf nightshade, sunflowers, prickly lettuce and yucca. Years two and three will include rangeland health assessments, water infiltration testing and photo monitoring pre- and post-grazing. Animal density and area demonstration sizes will be adjusted in consultation with our participating ranchers and based on the results of our rangeland health assessments. In year three we will add the educational and outreach focus. We will hold field tours for NRCS and Extension staff, local ranchers, County Commissioners, and Open Space Advisory boards and media. Kathy Voth will produce a video on DVD to share results of the project. A final workshop will be held in the fall/early winter of 2012 to share the final report results. In particular we will focus on sharing results with urban residents to demonstrate the importance of potential contributions to ecosystem function that can be made by agriculture in the community.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    1. Train City and County staff and participating ranchers in the use of rangeland health assessments to create a team of monitors. - Spring 2010

    2. Set up demonstration site pastures and manage cattle within them. Pastures will be set up in early June of 2010, 2011 and 2012. Cattle are managed in demonstration pastures for 6 weeks, each summer with timing to be selected based on forage growth for each of the three years of the project.

    3. Conduct six rangeland health assessments for each of the demonstration areas over the course of three years. This is a total of 72 rangeland health assessments in our 500 acre demonstration pasture. The data from these health assessments will be used to compare changes/improvements in ecosystem function among the different grazing treatments (regular density, high density and control). Pre-grazing rangeland health assessments will be done in early June of each of the three years of the project for all 12 demonstration plots. Post-grazing assessments will be done in September of each year of the project.

    4. Develop draft criteria for managing high density grazing including number/pounds of animals per acre, how long animals should be in one pasture based on changes in forage. This criteria will be developed using input from participating ranchers, successful practitioners, available literature, and adaptive management during the project. Criteria will begin development in the fall of 2010 and will be completed by the end of the project in 2012.

    5. Create outreach and education materials to share with producers, City and County staff, media, County commissioners, Open space advisory boards, NRCS and extension staff and others. These will include results in report form, flyer invitations and handouts for field days, and a video on DVD documenting the project . Results will also be available on the Boulder County Parks and Open Space and the Livestock for Landscapes. web site. Outreach and education materials will begin development in spring of 2012 and will be completed by the end of the project in 2012. Results will also be shared at annual meetings of producers with County and City staff.

    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.