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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service


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Title: Origin, persistence, and resolution of the rotational grazing debate: Integrating human dimensions into rangeland research

item Briske, David
item Sayre, Nathan
item Huntsinger, Lynn
item Fernandez-gimenez, Maria
item Budd, Bob
item Derner, Justin

Submitted to: Rangeland Ecology and Management
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: 3/20/2011
Publication Date: 7/5/2011
Citation: Briske, D.D., Sayre, N., Huntsinger, L., Fernandez-Gimenez, M., Budd, B., Derner, J.D. 2011. Origin, persistence, and resolution of the rotational grazing debate: Integrating human dimensions into rangeland research. Rangeland Ecology and Management. 64(4):325-334.

Interpretive Summary: Despite substantial experimental evidence that rotational grazing does not achieve specific ecological purposes, this grazing practice has become the standard for many management plans on private and public rangelands in the US. This synthesis paper provides the framework to integrate both experimental and experiential knowledge into decision-making and management processes that clearly identifies desired human and environmental outcomes. This approach can provide adaptability for site-specific management options that take into account the local variability in climate, production and conservation goals, and rural economic concerns.

Technical Abstract: This synthesis examines the origins of the rotational grazing debate, identifies the major reasons for its persistence, and concludes with an approach for resolution. The debate originated from scientific and institutional responses to rangeland degradation in the US during the late 1800s. Rotational grazing has been adopted as the professional norm for grazing management for primarily social reasons, rather than on the basis of a consistent record of achieving ecological outcomes. Advocates have demonstrated that rotational grazing systems can work for diverse management purposes; scientists have demonstrated that they do not necessarily work for specific ecological purposes. These interpretations appear contradictory, but become complementary when evaluated within the context of complex adaptive systems. The scientific evidence refuting the ecological benefits of rotational grazing is robust, but also narrowly focused, because it is derived from experiments that intentionally excluded human variables of critical importance to grazing management, such as the goals, knowledge, and decision-making abilities of managers. The debate has persisted because the rangeland profession has not yet developed a framework capable of integrating both the social and biophysical components of complex adaptive systems. Reliance on grazing systems terminology as the primary means to manage grazed ecosystems has restricted a more comprehensive evaluation of both ecological and management options, as indicated by greater emphasis on the ‘technology’ associated with size and number of pastures and length of rest and grazing periods, than on management and environmental outcomes. We recommend moving beyond the debate over whether or not rotational grazing ‘works,’ to focus instead on decision-making and management processes that integrate both experiential and experimental knowledge. An adaptive management framework that explicitly identifies both human and environmental outcomes can more effectively facilitate site-specific management strategies to accommodate the inherent uncertainties of rangeland ecosystems.

Last Modified: 10/17/2017
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