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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Research Project: Improved Management to Balance Production and Conservation in Great Plains Rangelands

Location: Rangeland Resources & Systems Research

Title: Diverse grazing management strategies produce similar ecological outcomes on ranches in the Western Great Plains: A social-ecological assessment

item Wilmer, Hailey
item Augustine, David
item Derner, Justin
item Fernandez-giminez, Maria
item Briske, David
item Miller, Kevin

Submitted to: Rangeland Ecology and Management
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: 8/9/2017
Publication Date: N/A
Citation: N/A

Interpretive Summary: Every day, ranch managers make difficult decisions about grazing. These decisions impact the sustainability of their operations. However, we still do not know much about the feedbacks between these decisions and ecological outcomes on real working ranches. In this paper, we attempt to address this gap by conducting interviews and ecological monitoring on 17 ranches eastern Colorado and eastern Wyoming. Our research objectives were to 1) test the links between rancher decision-making and ecological outcomes; 2) elucidate ranch adaptive decision-making processes through qualitative interviews; and 3) discuss the implications of decision-making processes and the short temporal scale of traditional grazing experiments (typically < 5 years). Management variables investigated were grazing strategy, grazing intensity, planning style and operation type. Ecological attributes included the relative abundance of plant functional groups and categories of ground cover. After we accounted for differences in the environment on different ranches, we found no significant differences in species composition on ranches using different grazing strategies. However, we did find significantly different species composition between ranches in relative high vs. low grazing intensity groups, and between cow-calf only operations and integrated cow-calf plus yearling operations. We also found that managers emphasized long-term goals, flexibility, and learning and improvement in their interviews. We discuss some of the implications of these findings. Ranchers have more flexibility in their grazing strategy decisions than they do when setting stocking rates, but stocking rate is the primary variable influencing species composition. And, the differences in species composition among different ranches in the study area has some benefit. It helps to create wildlife habitat at the landscape scale. In sum, ranch decision-making process are complex and are driven to social and economic dynamics beyond the ranch scale. And, there is no “best” grazing management strategy, but many ways for diverse ranchers to sustainably manage their operations.

Technical Abstract: Traditionally, grazing experiments have excluded ranch-scale decision-making. This has contributed to a lack of understanding of feedbacks between social and ecological processes at this scale. We conducted interviews and vegetation monitoring on 17 ranches in eastern Colorado and eastern Wyoming to investigate rancher decision-making processes and ecological consequences. Management variables investigated were grazing strategy, grazing intensity, planning style and operation type. Ecological attributes included the relative abundance of plant functional groups and categories of ground cover. We examined the environmental and management correlates of plant species and functional group composition using nonmetric multi-dimensional scaling and linear mixed models. After accounting for environmental variation across the study region, species composition did not differ between grazing management strategy or planning style. Operation type significantly correlated with plant community composition. Integrated cow-calf plus yearling operations had more abundance of annual cool-season grasses and less abundance of key cool-season grass species relative to cow-calf only operations. Integrated cow-calf plus yearling operations maintained an enhanced capacity to rapidly restock following drought compared to cow-calf operations. Variation in types of livestock operations contributes to variability in plant species composition at a landscape scale, and can also sustain habitats for diverse native faunal species in these rangeland ecosystems. We describe three themes from the interviews: 1) long-term goals, 2) flexibility, and 3) learning and improvement. Ranchers had little flexibility in their ranch-level long-term stocking rate. Stocking-rate decisions are slow, path-dependent choices that are shaped by broader social, economic and political dynamics. In contrast, ranchers described having flexibility in their grazing strategy, which enabled them to better maintain economic viability. These results reflect the complexity of the social-ecological systems ranchers navigate in their decision-making. We conclude that there is no “best” grazing strategy and that stocking rate is the primary variable influencing vegetation and livestock outcomes.

Last Modified: 09/21/2017
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