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On-Ranch Grazing Strategies: Context for the Rotational Grazing Dilemma

The following paper is from the peer-review journal Rangeland Ecology & Management, pgs. 248-256. The article is behind a paywall and can't be printed in full here, except for the abstract. Academic publishers usually charge per article unless you visit your local library to access the article via ScienceDirect for free. We have summarized the paper below.


The durable link to the article is


On-Ranch Grazing Strategies: Context for the Rotational Grazing Dilemma



Considerable debate remains over the efficacy of rotational grazing systems to enhance conservation and agricultural production goals on rangelands. We analyzed responses to grazing management questions in the Rangeland Decision Making Surveys of 765 California and Wyoming ranchers in order to characterize on-ranch grazing strategies and identify variables influencing strategy adoption. Two-thirds of respondents practice on-ranch rotational grazing strategies, indicating ranchers do experience benefits from rotation which have not been documented in experimental comparisons of rotational and continuous grazing systems. Limited on-ranch adoption of intensive rotational strategies (5% of respondents) indicates potential agreement between research and management perceptions about the success of this particular strategy for achieving primary livestock production goals. Over 93% of all rotational grazer respondents were characterized as using extensive intra-growing season rotation with moderate (few wk to mo) grazing period durations, moderate (2.4–8 ha·animal unit) livestock densities, and growing season rest periods. Variables associated with ranchers’ grazing preferences included a mixture of human dimensions (goal setting, views on experiment and risk tolerance, information networks), ranch characteristics (total number of livestock, land types comprising ranch), and ecoregions. We also found that the majority of grazing systems research has largely been conducted at spatial and temporal scales that are orders of magnitude finer than conditions under which on-ranch adaptive grazing management strategies have been developed. Resolving the discrepancies between the grazing systems research and management knowledge base will require substantive communication and novel approaches to participatory research between scientists and managers. (248)


Rotational Grazing Dilemma, Contextualized


In 2015 this study was published in the journal Rangeland Ecology & Management, examining ranchers' use of rotational grazing in California and Wyoming; these states served as samples to view cattle grazing practices as a whole. Ranchers in both states participated the Rangeland Decision Making Surveys of California and Wyoming, sent to the membership lists of the California Cattlemen's Association and the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. In the end, 33% of California survey recipients (473) and 49% of the Wyoming survey recipients (292) participated in the survey.


Questions were derived to assess attitudes toward experimenting with new strategies/practices, economic viability and environmental protection, and risk taking. We asked ranchers to rank specific agricultural and natural resource management goals from highest to lowest priority to quantify the relative importance respondents placed on production (e.g., livestock, forage) versus non-commodity ecosystem services (e.g., carbon sequestration, invasive weed management, recreation, riparian health, soil health, water quality, and wildlife). (250)


As stated in the abstract, the survey took into account a number of factors: the size of the operation, the location (elevation, soil type, etc.) of the operation, the number of generations of family members working the operation, ranch operator attitudes (values and willingness to take risks). Not noted in the abstract, but of great importance, they looked into the quality of the social network that informed the decisions ranchers made regarding rotational grazing. In short, the better the network's information, the more likely they were to try new things like intensive rotational grazing.


Details factored into the results included things like the number of pastures ranchers had available to work with and the number of livestock they were raising. Some of the ranchers used public or other leased lands, while the rest owned the entire property where cattle were grazed. Sometimes the resting period for the land was during the growing season, other times the resting period was only during the dormant season when animals were moved to a different elevation.


Terms used in this survey include Intensive and Extensive grazing. Extensive grazing means the cattle spend a lot of time on natural grasslands, shrublands, woodlands, wetlands, and deserts. It differs from intensive grazing, where the animal spends a shorter time in a pasture or the feed comes from mainly natural or artificial, seeded pastures.


The upshot of this research shows that many of the ranch operations were already doing some aspect of rotational grazing. "Two thirds of 765 ranchers responding from across two western states and 15 ecoregions reported on-ranch use of rotational grazing strategies. This adoption rate confirms that ranchers do perceive social, economic, and/or ecological benefits which have not been documented in scientific comparisons of rotational and continuous grazing systems."


The emergence of rotational grazing as a dominant on-ranch management strategy indicates social, economic, and/or ecological benefits from rotation are perceived within the spatial and temporal scales at which ranchers make adaptive management decisions. A substantial proportion of grazing systems research has been focused on assessing the claimed benefits of intensive rotational grazing systems, when in actuality the vast majority of reported on-ranch rotational grazing is extensive in nature. (256)


This survey looks at current cattle ranching practices. The TORC interest in this subject is due to the environmental benefits when the methods in use are boosted into the range of regenerative grazing, that builds the soil health by managing cattle on the land so the cattle feed the plants and the plants feed the animals. The outcome, when this is done well, is to have healthy land, high-quality cattle, and carbon is sequestered back into the soil. For the sake of the planet, it is a hopeful sign that a significant number of ranchers are already managing their cattle in a way that is less destructive than many practices of the twentieth century. When the ranching social network includes agricultural extension organizations with knowledgeable staff and helpful documentation, the bottom line can look better for all. 





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