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ARS Home » Plains Area » Miles City, Montana » Livestock and Range Research Laboratory » Research » Research Project #424156

Research Project: Adaptive Rangeland Management of Livestock Grazing, Disturbance, and Climatic Variation

Location: Livestock and Range Research Laboratory

2017 Annual Report

Objective 1: Develop management strategies to improve rangeland cattle production and ecological stability in the northern Great Plains through effective use of rangeland forage resources, precision supplementation, and livestock with greater adaptability to climatic, physiological, and nutritional stress. Sub-objective 1.1 Determine effects of dormant rangeland forage utilization on heifer development, plant productivity, and species composition. Sub-objective 1.2 Develop nutritional management for post-weaning heifer development to complement annual and weather-driven fluctuations in forage availability and quality. Sub-objective 1.3 Estimate effects of vegetation, climate, and environmental variables on cattle growth. Sub-objective 1.4 Develop mineral supplement and water amendment strategies to ameliorate weather-induced changes in naturally occurring rangeland stock water quality. Sub-objective 1.5 Develop a molecular barcode system for northern mixed-grass prairie plant species that will enable future description of plants consumed by livestock on rangelands. Objective 2: Develop management strategies integrating grazing, fire, and chemical practices to restore rangelands degraded by weeds and prevent weed invasions in the northern Great Plains. Sub-objective 2.1 Develop fire and herbicide treatment combinations to reduce annual brome abundance in rangelands. Sub-objective 2.2 Develop effective practices to rehabilitate rangeland riverine sites that have been mechanically and chemically treated to eradicate Russian olive. Sub-objective 2.3 Identify and develop effective reclamation strategies for converting coal mining lands back to livestock grazing lands. Sub-objective 2.4 Determine physiological traits allowing perennial seedlings to use dormancy to survive unfavorable environmental conditions. Objective 3: Develop adaptive strategies for managing the interacting effects of livestock grazing, fire, and climatic variation on northern Great Plains rangelands to increase the stability of livestock production while maintaining ecosystem health. Sub-objective 3.1 Quantify grazing season and intensity effects on plant community composition and productivity. Sub-objective 3.2 Quantify interacting effects of climate with defoliation timing and intensity on rangeland stability. Sub-objective 3.3 Determine rangeland community response to autumn defoliation intensity. Sub-objective 3.4 Determine post-fire weather effects on plant community response to summer fire. Sub-objective 3.5 Determine the effect of mycorrhizal fungi and different levels of simulated grazing on plant community composition and measures of soil health. Sub-objective 3.6 Determine plant and soil community response to fire return interval and seasonality.

Sustainability of rangeland production hinges on the stability of plant communities because changes in species composition, forage production, and forage quality fundamentally affect the animal community. The primary forces of change in rangelands are weather, grazing, alien plants, and fire. This project is designed to improve ecological sustainability and rangeland production by addressing opportunities for increased efficiency of livestock nutrient conversion, mechanisms affecting restoration success, and interacting effects of disturbances with weather and climate. We propose improved efficiency of nutrient conversion from dormant rangeland forages is among the most viable options for increasing animal production and minimizing effects on plant communities. We will address this proposition through a series of experiments evaluating plant and animal responses to dormant-season utilization and supplementation strategies. Rangeland restoration methods will be evaluated for direct weed control and mechanisms controlling successful establishment of desirable species. Water manipulations will be included in multiple experiments to determine weather and long-term climate effects because precipitation is the primary controlling factor for plant productivity and community composition. Experiments will be integrated across objectives to determine interacting effects of precipitation, grazing, weeds, and fire on soil and plant communities (production, species composition, diversity, propagation, survival) and cattle (weight gain, reproductive performance, diet quality, diet selection). Understanding the mechanisms that control rangeland stability and animal responses to alterations in plant communities will assist land managers and livestock producers in improving rangeland integrity and efficiency of livestock production. Results will also provide scientists greater understanding of the complex interacting forces on rangelands.

Progress Report
Final data have been collected to determine effects of dormant rangeland forage utilization on heifer development, plant productivity, and species composition (Objective 1.1). Laboratory analysis is approaching completion, data are being compiled for statistical analysis and report is being synthesized. Development of nutritional management for post-weaning heifer development to complement annual and weather-driven fluctuations in forage availability and quality is near completion (Objective 1.2) Supplement intake and hay fed records are complete. Paddock measurements and global positioning system (GPS) data are collected. Data are in initial stages of analysis and an abstract is in preparation for winter meetings. Data management for analysis is in progress for developing mineral supplement and water amendment strategies to ameliorate weather-induced changes in naturally occurring rangeland stock water quality (Objective 1.4). Water source samples were completed, forage collections occurred, and loose mineral consumption was monitored in summer using pasture GroSafe system. A manuscript should be prepared in the next year. DNA metabarcoding is a promising tool for quantifying cattle diet (dissimilarity) in rangelands with diverse forage compositions (Objective 1.5). For this study, two experiments have been completed to show the efficacy of this new technology and potential correction factors and DNA has been extracted from all samples (e.g. reference library of 335 plant species). Tagging and PCR protocols have been developed and the research is progressing. Fire and herbicide combinations are affecting annual brome biomass and seed viability (Objective 2.1). The experiment is being repeated due to drought and final herbicide treatment is scheduled for spring 2018. Weather conditions allowed brome establishment this year and fire reduced brome substantially. Data collection was completed to develop effective practices to rehabilitate rangeland riverine sites that have been mechanically and chemically treated to eradicate Russian olive (Objective 2.2). Data have been analyzed and a manuscript submitted. Effective reclamation strategies have been developed for converting coal mining lands back to livestock grazing lands (Objective 2.3) and the manuscript will be submitted this fall. Research to determine physiological traits allowing perennial seedlings to survive unfavorable environmental conditions (Objective 2.4) is on schedule, but has been extended two years to allow longer evaluation of plant survival. Grazing season and intensity showed their first apparent effects this year (Objective 3.1), with severe spring grazing increasing cheatgrass compared to moderate spring grazing or fall grazing. This is the first indication that fall grazing at severe levels may have similar effects to the recommended moderate use during spring, allowing greater utilization of forage resources without detriment to rangeland. Long-term precipitation and defoliation treatments (Objective 3.2) continued with the third year of rainfall manipulation. To determine rangeland community response to autumn defoliation intensity (Objective 3.3), data collection continues and responses are being evaluated to determine if the period has been sufficient to expect responses in the rangeland community. Our past work has shown northern mixed prairie to be resistant to grazing. Data are continually being compiled and statistical analysis is being performed for dissemination of report. Data were collected and will be analyzed this fall to determine post-fire weather effects on plant community response to summer fire (Objective 3.4). Mycorrhizal fungi are thought to affect forage production, grassland composition, and soil health metrics (aggregate stability) and interact with grazing (Objective 3.5). Plant species and communities in the Northern Plains are less responsive to mycorrhizal fungi than expected based on work in the Central Plains. This study is also attempting to uncover the best predictors of variation in soil water transport (infiltration) in grasslands, which is surprisingly not (positively) correlated with soil aggregate stability. For this experiment, data has been compiled and its analysis is in progress. Long-term fire seasonality-frequency research (Objective 3.6) continued in its 12th year and sites are prepared to begin the second fire cycle next summer. Monitoring of Russian olive control effects on plants, nutrients and animals continued.

1. Medusahead is among the most ecologically and economically damaging invasive weeds of the western U.S. Research led by ARS scientists in Miles City, Montana, collaborating with industry and university partners, has discovered a completely novel approach for managing this invasive annual grass. The herbicide aminopyralid applied at a very low rate just prior to medusahead flowering drastically reduced seed production in the current generation of plants and reduced cover to nearly zero in the subsequent generation of plants. Controlling medusahead with this treatment increased production of desired forage grasses, sometimes dramatically. Results were consistent across eight sites distributed across a wide geographical area. Compared to other treatment options, this new approach is less expensive, provides better control of the invader and is more beneficial to desirable forage species.

2. The 17 western states in the contiguous U.S. averaged 4.6 million acres burned in each of the last 5 years. In addition to costs ranchers face in replacing infrastructure, natural resource agencies often require removal of grazing for 1-3 years after fire. Resulting annual costs in rented pasture alone exceed $54 million. ARS scientists in Miles City, Montana, in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service determined northern mixed prairie can be grazed the first growing season after spring wildfire without loss in plant production or negative changes in the plant community. Fire increased plant production 56% the year of the wildfire and yielded slightly more or similar production as nonburned sites with a history of light to moderate grazing the second and third years after fire. A companion study demonstrated that plant response to fire was similar whether sites were mowed in June, August, October or not mowed after fire. Neither complete rest nor seasonal delays in grazing are necessary for maintenance of plant productivity and species composition in northern mixed-grass prairie following spring wildfire. Results were similar to recent research from the same lab indicating northern mixed prairie is resistant to grazing after summer fire. Results are assisting natural resource agencies with grazing management decisions after fire and reducing pasture costs for ranchers affected by wildfire. Resulting research papers have been used for popular articles in Ag Research, The Furrow, and On Pasture magazines.

Review Publications
Waterman, R.C., Kelly, W.L., Larson, C.K., Petersen, M.K. 2017. Comparison of supplemental cobalt form on fibre digestion and cobalamin concentrations in cattle. Journal of Agricultural Science. 155(5):832-838. doi:10.1017/S0021859617000107.
Gates, E.A., Vermeire, L.T., Marlow, C.B., Waterman, R.C. 2017. Reconsidering rest following fire: Northern mixed-grass prairie is resilient to grazing following spring wildfire. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment. 237:258-264. doi:10.1016/j.agee.2017.01.001.
Reinhart, K.O., Vermeire, L.T. 2017. Power and limitation of soil properties as predictors of variation in peak plant biomass in a northern mixed-grass prairie. Ecological Indicators. 80:268-274.
Progar, R.A., Hrinkevich, K., Clark, E., Rinella, M.J. 2017. Prescribed burning in ponderosa pine: fuel reductions and redistributing fuels near boles to prevent injury. Fire Ecology. 13(1):149-161. doi:10.4996/fireecology.1301149.
Waterman, R.C., Geary, T.W., Petersen, M.K., MacNeil, M.M. 2016. Effects of reduced in utero and post-weaning nutrition on milk yield and composition in primiparous beef cows. Animal-The International Journal of Animal Biosciences. 11(1): 84-90. doi:10.1017/S1751731116001257.
Russell, M.L., Vermeire, L.T., Ganguli, A.C., Hendrickson, J.R. 2017. Phenology of perennial native grass below-ground axillary buds in the northern mixed-grass prairie. American Journal of Botany. 104:915-923.
Goodman, L.E., Cibils, A.F., Wesley, R.L., Mulliniks, J.T., Petersen, M.K., Scholljegerdes, E.J., Cox, S.H. 2016. Temperament affects rangeland use patterns and reproductive performance of beef cows. Rangelands. 38(5):292-296. doi:10.1016/j.rala.2016.07.002.
Bennett, J.A., Maherali, H., Reinhart, K.O., Lekberg, Y., Hart, M.M., Klironomos, J. 2017. Plant-soil feedbacks and mycorrhizal type influence temperate forest population dynamics. Science. 355:181-184.
Gates, E.A., Vermeire, L.T., Marlow, C.B., Waterman, R.C. 2017. Fire and season of post-fire defoliation effects on biomass, composition and cover in mixed-grass prairie. Rangeland Ecology and Management. 70(4), 430-436.
Sawalhah, M.N., Cibils, A.F., Maladi, A., Cao, H., Vanleeuwen, D.M., Holechek, J.L., Black Rubio, C.M., Wesley, R.L., Endecott, R.L., Mulliniks, T.J., Petersen, M.K. 2016. Forage and weather influence day versus nighttime cow behavior and calf weaning weights on rangeland. Rangeland Ecology and Management. 69(2):134-143. doi:10.1016/j.rama.2015.10.007.
Kiniry, J.R., Muscha, J.M., Petersen, M.K., Kilian, R.W., Metz, L.J. 2017. Short duration, perennial grasses in low rainfall sites in Montana: Deriving growth parameters and simulating with a process-based model. Journal of Experimental Agriculture International. 15(6):1-13. doi:10.9734/JEAI/2017/32232.
Cohn, T., Wyckoff, W.K., Rinella, M.J., Eitel, J.H. 2016. Seems like I hardly see them around anymore: Historical geographies of Cottonwood decline along the Wind River. Water History. 8(4):405-429.