Our Nation’s rangeland and pastures, the forages and other plants that grow on them, and the domestic and wild animals that graze them or consume harvested forages, all contribute to our agricultural, environmental, economic, and social well-being. Rangeland, pasture, and forages together comprise about 55% of the total land surface of the United States, about a billion acres. Privately owned lands comprise about 45% of this total, or about 640 million acres. These lands represent the largest and most diverse land resources in the U.S. Rangelands and pastures include the annual grasslands of California, the tundra rangelands of Alaska, the hot arid deserts of the Southwest, the temperate deserts of the Pacific Northwest, the semiarid cold deserts of the Great Basin, the prairies of the Great Plains, the humid native grasslands of the South and East, and the pastures and hay lands within all 50 states from Hawaii to Maine and Alaska to Florida.
These lands are the primary forage base for our livestock grazing industry in the U.S. They are utilized by more than 60 million cattle and 8 million sheep and support a livestock industry that contributes more than $60 billion in farm sales annually to the U.S. economy. The estimated value of hay production alone is $11 billion, our third most valuable crop to U.S. agriculture, behind only corn and soybeans. The publicly owned rangelands in the western U.S. are also important, providing forage on 260 million acres for 3 million beef cattle and sheep. Nearly 70% of dietary protein and 40% of dietary calories for the U.S. population are of animal origin, and forage resources are crucial for sustained production of our animal-based products.
The functions of these lands are of increasing importance as watersheds and as habitat for a set of biologically diverse plants and animals. Maintaining adequate supplies of clean water for urban areas, irrigated agriculture, and environmental needs is a critical function of rangeland, pasture, and forage-producing ecosystems. Rangelands and pastures also provide forage and habitat for numerous wildlife species, including 20 million deer, 500,000 pronghorn antelope, 400,000 elk, and 55,000 feral horses and burros. Associated with these functions is an array of additional demands placed on these natural resources, including camping, hiking, fishing, hunting, and other recreational activities. This multitude of uses--from grazing lands to watersheds, critical habitats, and recreational areas--require an improved understanding of basic ecological processes and the effect on these processes on grazing, livestock production, and management practices. Science-based solutions to these needs must be economically viable and socially acceptable. The overall goal of this national program is to provide the appropriate technologies and management strategies to sustain our rangelands and pastures.
Harvested and conserved forages provide a dietary resource for continuity of livestock production. This is especially important during periods of cold or drought when nutrient-rich plants are not available. Harvested and conserved forages also provide an important source of roughage and nutrients for dairy cattle in confined animal feeding operations. To meet this demand, nearly 200 million tons of forage crops are harvested each year from 73 million acres in the U.S., which is 24% of the cropland. The value of forage crops harvested as hay or silage is $16 billion annually. About one-half of these crops provide the forage requirements of dairy cattle. The remainder, along with rangeland and pasture, supplies the forage needs of beef cattle, sheep, horses, and other livestock.
To accomplish these objectives, the Rangeland, Pasture, and Forages National Program has five science-based program components: (1) Ecosystems and Their Sustainable Management, (2) Plant Resources, (3) Forage Management, (4) Grazing Management: Livestock Production and the Environment, and (5) Integrated Management of Weeds and Other Pests. The critical problems being addressed by these components include (1) identification and mitigation of livestock grazing impacts on water resources, (2) development of improved forage legume germplasm, (3) integration of strategies for management and control of weeds, (4) identification and testing of measurements and systems for monitoring rangeland and pasture ecosystems, (5) development of science-based decision support systems for sustainable resource management, (6) development of ecologically-based methods to repair degraded systems, and (7) development of efficient forage harvest and conservation techniques.