Are Feedlot-based Performance Cattle Limiting Ecological Services for Rangeland Ecosystems in Northern Mixed-grass prairies?

Project Overview

Project Type: Professional + Producer
Funds awarded in 2015: $49,961.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2018
Grant Recipient: Montana State University
Region: Western
State: Montana
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Emily Meccage
Montana State University

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: grass (misc. perennial), Range
  • Animals: bovine
  • Animal Products: meat


  • Animal Production: feed/forage, grazing management, grazing - rotational, range improvement, rangeland/pasture management, stocking rate, winter forage
  • Education and Training: demonstration, extension, focus group
  • Natural Resources/Environment: habitat enhancement

    Proposal abstract:

    Livestock grazing is the most wide-spread influence on native ecosystems in western North America with more than 70% of the western U.S. being grazed. Livestock grazing provides food and fiber, as well as economic and social benefits to local communities and protection to grassland ecosystems from conversion to croplands and loss to urbanization. Historic efforts to enhance the long term sustainability of rangeland services and products have centered on application of a stocking rate appropriate for the local ecosystem. However, there is uncertainty about how well the historic stocking rate calculation will continue to protect soil and water resources when more cattle are finished on forage. The uncertainty exists because the forage demand parameter of the current stocking rate model was developed when the average mother cow weighed between 1,000 and 1,100 lbs. Accelerated breeding programs for high performance feedlot cattle have caused a dramatic shift upward in cow weights. This means that many range and pasture lands are being overgrazed even though the producer is adhering to the recommended stocking rate. Producers who may believe they have the capacity to forage finish cattle because they have stocked below the recommended levels may, in fact, deplete their pasturelands. Unlike properly managed rangelands that have rapid water infiltration and ground water recharge, healthy soils and nutrient cycles, low invasions by non-native plants, effective collection and storage of atmospheric carbon, and habitat for a variety of wildlife, degraded pastures limit ecosystem services. Successful grazing systems based on stocking rates adjusted for modern breed sizes will result in sustainable grassland ecosystems that provide viable revenue for producers and have the flexibility to reach multiple management and environmental goals, including maintenance of plant community health, protection of water quality and quantity, reduction of accelerated soil erosion, and promotion of local community economic stability through rangeland sustainability. The future of working rangelands depends on developing novel approaches and partnerships that enhance sustainability of both cow-calf and forage finishing operations. Recent societal shifts toward grass-fed beef coupled with high grain prices offers an opportunity to explore the economic and ecological effects of finishing cattle on native and improved forage. Forage-finishing may reduce inputs for cattle production by eliminating transportation to feedlots and feedlot costs. Moreover, proponents of forage-finishing cattle claim that this production strategy lowers the cost of crop production, feed grinding, storage, transportation, and manure management. Ecological benefits of forage finishing are numerous and include a reduced carbon footprint from the reduction of grain production and transportation, as well as restoring areas in grain production to native or improved permanent forage. Nevertheless, historical selection toward large-framed cattle may preclude the ability for cattle to finish on forage. Large-framed steers and heifers may take longer to come to targeted back fat levels than smaller framed cattle, leading to increased forage intake that may reduce long-term forage availability, diversity, and quality. Consequently, simply switching the current genetic pool of cattle to all forage finishing diets may forestall the applicability and economic viability of forage-finishing. The goal of our proposed collaboration is to evaluate whether shifting to smaller-framed cows enhances the ability of their offspring to finish on forage, while reducing producer inputs and providing increased ecosystem services. We expect that downsizing cattle will improve forage utilization and allow for more efficient growth of young cattle on native and improved forage, and reduce or eliminate the need for supplementation and feedlot finishing. Furthermore, small framed cattle may more closely match the expected forage removal suggested by stocking rate models. The combination of lower stocking rates and more efficient calves would lower long-term impacts to rangeland resources and improve bottom-up ecosystem function and habitat conditions for livestock and wildlife. We hypothesize that reductions in cattle frame-size will have positive effects on the long term profitability of family ranches and the rangeland ecosystems they depend on in the following ways: Bring forage demand (stocking rate) into agreement with pasture and rangeland vegetation recovery potential Reduce per capita grazing impacts to rangelands through more efficient forage utilization Maintain or enhance rangeland ecosystem services that support local and regional economies. Establish a supply line of quality “grass fed” beef for local food coops and specialty meat markets Creation of opportunities for smaller producers to fully integrate their cattle production systems.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Our specific objectives are to:

    1. Assess the economic impacts of reducing frame size of cattle finished on forage. Forage-finishing may reduce inputs for cattle production by eliminating transportation to feedlots and feedlot costs. In addition, larger-framed calves should be slower to finish on forage than smaller-framed calves (Tatum et al., 1988), resulting in increased per capita consumption and higher supplemental forage demands. This study will evaluate whether combined cost savings in inputs such as supplemental forage and grain and transportation offset lower revenues provided by lower finishing weights.

    2. Assess the influence of cattle frame size on the capacity of conventional stocking rate models to protect or improve watersheds, wildlife habitat, and rangeland condition. Forage demand resulting from current production systems using cows weighing ≥1,300 lbs is certainly greater than what standard stocking models assume for cows weighing 1,000 lbs. Higher stocking rates result in lower per capita cattle performance, and potentially negative impacts to range condition due to the significant, but unaccounted for, increase in stocking rate. Moreover, we expect forage utilization efficiency (lbs of forage consumed per ADG) for high performance calves bred for feedlot finishing to be greater than smaller-framed calves. Lower forage demand resulting from more efficient calves should result in higher structural and floristic diversity of native rangeland vegetation, higher water infiltration and ground water recharge, healthy soils and nutrient cycles, lower invasions by non-native plants, higher rates of atmospheric carbon sequestration, improved habitat conditions for a variety of wildlife species, and increased biodiversity.


     3. Develop new winter stocking rate model for native ranges that will protect/promote soil health, forage quality, watershed function, and wildlife habitat persistence.


    The historic stocking rate model that has been used on private and public lands is not reflective of current cattle weights. In the original development of these stocking rate recommendations, cattle were maturing at weights averaging 1,000 lbs. At these weights, the current stocking rate model was useful in reversing many decades of soil and watershed deterioration resulting from overgrazing. However, as the mature size of cattle has increased, from 1,000 lbs to 1,300 lbs, the current stocking rate model does not accurate reflect the actual amount of forage that is used by these cattle, with significant implications for soil health and long-term forage quality. The goal of creating a new stocking rate model to more accurately depict current cattle weights is to improve overall soil quality by increasing vegetative mass left after a grazing event. Increases in vegetative cover should also increase overall forage quality of the pastures while promoting improved wildlife habitat.


    The primary education and extension objectives of this study are to:



      1. Develop transformative activities that will allow producers to make more informed decisions regarding grazing management and environmental effects


      1. Disseminate information through outreach activities such as field days and news releases, as well as social media


      1. Develop training opportunities and educational resources on grazing management and its effects to engage undergraduate and graduate students


      1. Provide hands-on education opportunities via research participation that will equip students with new decision-making and research tools


    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.