Prescribed Grazing to Sustain Livestock Production, Soil Quality, and Diversity in Rangeland Ecosystems

Project Overview

SW10-073
Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2010: $197,268.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: Western
State: Wyoming
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Kenneth Tate
University of California Davis

Annual Reports

Commodities

  • Agronomic: grass (misc. perennial), hay
  • Additional Plants: native plants
  • Animals: bovine, sheep

Practices

  • Animal Production: grazing - continuous, free-range, grazing management, manure management, mineral supplements, grazing - multispecies, pasture fertility, pasture renovation, range improvement, grazing - rotational, stocking rate, watering systems, winter forage, feed/forage

    Abstract:

    Rangelands encompass over 43 million acres in California and Wyoming and provide critical ecosystem services, such as soil moisture and nutrient conditions which support plant growth, plant diversity and livestock production. Practical ranch management options are needed which sustain soil quality, plant diversity and livestock production – thus supporting rural economies throughout the western U.S. We think that ranchers have substantial experience and perspective about the interplay of social, economic and ecological factors which must be considered when developing sustainable range management strategies.

    In this project we set out to capture manager knowledge and perspectives on agricultural and conservation goals, use of conservation programs, key ranch management practices, grazing management strategies and managing for and during drought. We conducted in person, semi-structured interviews with over 100 ranchers, as well as a mail survey of over 800 ranchers total across California and Wyoming. We have, and continue to, analyzed survey and interview data from both states. In both states, livestock and forage production were the primary management goals for most ranchers surveyed. However, soil health, water quality, riparian health, weed management and wildlife habitat were identified by ranchers as supporting secondary goals which are compatible with production goals. Recreation and carbon sequestration were minor management goals.

    In California, 25% of ranchers surveyed have participated in USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program, and about 10% have a conservation easement. Ranchers with larger amounts of land, an orientation towards the future and who are opinion leaders with access to conservation information are more likely to participate in these types of conservation programs. There is substantial room to increase rancher awareness of the availability of conservation incentive programs.

    Livestock drinking water development and cross fencing were key grazing management practices identified by ranchers in both states. A majority of California and Wyoming ranchers use extensive rotational grazing strategies, with few to several pastures and rotation frequency of several weeks to monthly. California ranchers also reported use of season-long set stocking and year-long continuous set stocking, without rotation. A small portion (<5%) of Wyoming ranchers reported using high density short duration grazing strategies. These were commonly ranchers who ranked livestock production as their fifth or lower management goal. Ranchers ranking livestock production as their top priority were the least likely to adopt the high density short duration grazing strategy. We found relationships between rancher’s grazing strategy, willingness to experiment, number of valued information sources, prioritization of livestock production as a goal, herd size and ecosystem the ranch lies within.

    Predominant drought impacts reported were lost grazing capacity, lost profit and reduced calf weaning weights. Proactive drought management strategies were to use a conservative stocking rate, include pasture rest in grazing strategy, and incorporating yearling cattle (stockers or feeders) and cow-calf in the enterprise for flexibility in adjusting cattle numbers annually. Primary reactive drought management strategies were to reduce herd size, buy feed, enroll in drought insurance/assistance programs and wean calves early.

    At the time of this report, we have two papers published, one accepted with minor revision and three more in late stages of preparation. We have conducted substantial extension and outreach of project results with ranchers, agencies, NGOs and rangeland stakeholders across both states. In California, there has been much recent media coverage of the project as is applies to the 2013-14 drought.

    Project objectives:

    We collaborated with the range management communities in Wyoming and California in general and specifically with the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, California Cattlemen’s Association, Farm Bureau Federation, Rangeland Conservation Coalition and other stakeholders to attain the following objectives:

    1. Conduct a scientific mail survey of 507 California and 307 Wyoming ranchers to gain social, economic and ecological insights into goal setting, use/valuation of management practices, grazing management strategies and drought management strategies.

    Performance Targets: 1) Develop a survey with broad input from leadership of Wyoming Stock Growers and the California Cattlemen’s Association, NRCS and other stakeholders; 2) Achieve 30% initial return success of respondents to the survey in each state; 3) If return success rate is <30%, conduct follow-up contact of ranchers by mail; 4) Summarize findings from survey; 5) Disseminate information on survey findings at annual meetings for the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, California Cattlemen’s Association and Society for Range Management; and 6) Disseminate information on survey findings through popular press publications in Cow Country (publication of Wyoming Stock Growers Association), Rangelands (publication of the Society for Range Management) and University of Wyoming and University of California Cooperative Extension outlets, and through a scientific publication in Rangeland Ecology and Management and other journals.

    2. Conduct semi-structured interviews with 100 ranchers to 1) improve connections between research and policy with how decisions get made on-the-ground; 2) link decision-making to agricultural and ecological outcomes, 3) connect rancher knowledge and research to provide insights into strategies to adapt to future changes, and 4) compile the knowledge and expertise of experienced ranchers and rangeland managers.

    Performance Targets: 1) Complete 100 individual rancher semi-structured interviews; 2) Conduct qualitative and quantitative analyses to address the objectives above; and 3) Disseminate findings.

    3. Extend project results to ranchers, policy makers and scientists, including the development of internet-based information resources that allow users to access project findings and other relevant information.

    Performance Targets: 1) Regularly conduct outreach associated with this project; 2) Develop and post project results as they become available; 3) Develop supporting online information resources targeting information needs and addressing concerns raised by ranchers during survey and interviews.

    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.