Harnessing livestock and microbes to improve rangeland productivity and soil health

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2023: $304,450.00
Projected End Date: 06/30/2026
Host Institution Award ID: G297-23-W9981
Grant Recipients: Colorado State University; Northern Arizona University; University of Arizona
Region: Western
State: Arizona
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Caroline Havrilla
Colorado State University
Dr. Catherine Gehring
Northern Arizona University
Dr. Elise Gornish
University of Arizona
Dr. Seth Munson
United States Geological Survey

Information Products


  • Animals: bovine


  • Animal Production: range improvement
  • Education and Training: extension, on-farm/ranch research, participatory research
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity
  • Soil Management: organic matter, soil analysis, soil microbiology, soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: social networks

    Proposal abstract:

    Healthy soils support working rangelands that ranchers rely on for their livelihoods. Degraded soil resources due to drought, intensive land use, and invasive species have resulted in reduced rangeland productivity. The common practice of seeding to improve degraded rangelands can fail due to underlying soil degradation, which is often not addressed. Further, most rangeland improvement guides recommend land  be taken out of production for recovery, which may be economically infeasible. Standard strategies overlook the importance of soil health and the incorporation of livestock into rangeland recovery efforts, There is a growing need to test and develop strategies that improve rangeland productivity while keeping lands in production. We propose a producer driven, on-ranch experiment to answer the questions: (1) Can we reverse underlying soil degradation to enhance plant establishment and forage production? and (2) Can livestock be used to enhance plant establishment and aid in soil health recovery?

    We propose to systematically test the use of novel soil-focused strategies (live topsoil transfers, seedballs, soil pits) to improve seeding efforts in degraded rangelands. Our proposed strategies are technologically simple and designed with  the challenges of revegetating dry and drought-prone regions. These soil-focused strategies will be tested with and without targeted livestock grazing across climate and soil gradients using the proven RestoreNet field-trial network. RestoreNet spans 25 degraded rangeland sites throughout the southwestern U.S. and provides on-the-ground testing and demonstration of rangeland improvement strategies. We will measure improvements in plant establishment and productivity (e.g., plant species, density, biomass) and soil health indicators (e.g., compaction, aggregate stability, soil microbial communities). We aim to generate site-specific recommendations and share outcomes through outreach among ranchers and land managers.

    We developed our proposal based on the interests and feedback of our RestoreNet stakeholders. They are and will be actively engaged in the planning, implementation, and evaluation of this project through a collaborative science co-production process. Our interdisciplinary research and extension team will engage a core advisory stakeholder committee throughout the project to ensure that rancher and land manager needs are addressed. Our team will conduct outreach and share effective practices with ranchers through field days, workshops, rancher group meetings, newsletters, and social media. Expected products  include (1) a Restoring Soil Health on Working Rangelands Best Management Practices (BMP) guide that summarizes our project findings and their applicability to rangelands in the southwestern U.S., (2) at least two peer-reviewed journal articles published in applied scientific journals, (3) two extension-style information briefs written in plain language and widely distributed, and (4) landowner reports with site-specific findings for each ranch or site where our research was conducted. In the face of increased drought and degradation in southwestern rangelands, this work will address the critical need to develop and communicate strategies that restore soil health and sustain rangeland productivity.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Research Objectives: 

    Objective 1: Examine the effects of seeding and soil treatments with and without targeted livestock grazing on  plant establishment and vegetation biomass across environmental and disturbance gradients using the RestoreNet co-production framework over a 2 year period (Fig. 1)

    Objective 2: Examine the effects of seeding and soil treatments with and without targeted livestock grazing on soil health indicators across environmental and disturbance gradients using the RestoreNet co-production framework over a 1 and 2 year period (Fig. 1)

    Education Objectives: 

    Objective 3: Create an advisory committee to ensure that project goals, process, and outreach activities are aligned with rancher needs throughout the project

    Objective 4: Develop rangeland improvement recommendations based on project results and feedback from stakeholders

    Objective 5: Share information and facilitate communication among ranchers and land managers in our region

    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.