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Research Brief: Interdisciplinary team prepares to survey ranchers

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By Bethany Cutts - Posted on 01 November 2010

Here is a press release I'm preparing for the Farm Bureau and California Cattlemen's to run in advance of our survey (which is getting close to being ready to test!). I would appreciate any comments.

A group of researchers at University of California, Davis is funded by the USDA to conduct cutting edge social and ecological research on rangelands. The project, supported by the California Farm Bureau Federation, California Cattlemen’s Association, and many other groups, aims to understand the many ways in which ranchers manage livestock and lands for multiple goals. This winter, they will be sending a survey to over 1500 ranchers in an effort to understand decision-making.

Annual rangelands are economically and ecologically important to California. In California, rangelands cover approximately 6.4 million hectares, and produce 70% of the state’s forage base. Livestock production provides economic security for rural communities— annual gross value of cattle production in California exceeds $3 billion.

The ecosystem is the most species-rich in California, with more than 300 vertebrate, 5000 invertebrate, and 2000 plant species. Soils have the capacity to support lots of plant growth which stores carbon, a service that has received a lot of attention recently because it helps to regulate the climate. Over 85% of California’s drinking water supply is generated and stored annually within rangeland watersheds.
California’s annual rangelands are over 80% privately owned and managed primarily for cattle
production enterprises. To ensure success, the priorities of ranchers must be incorporated into the management of this ecosystem.

It is not always easy to find the balance between economic and ecological services provided by rangelands. Poor grazing can cause rangeland soils erode when oaks are over-harvested or too many live stock graze during the wet season. When changes in soil qualities and light availability allow invasive plants like medusahead and yellow starthistle to establish, biodiversity and reduce forage quality suffer.

Good management often finds ways to address multiple goals at once. Studies have found that grazing sometimes enhances biodiversity, supports sensitive species, suppresses weeds. In some studies, seasonal grazing significantly enhanced herbaceous plant diversity in vernal pools, even when compared to treatments that excluded grazing all together. The social and ecological factors that allow this, however, are not well understood.

The project will improve the connection between science, rangeland decision-making, and policy.

To prepare for this winter’s survey, the team has been conducting interviews with ranchers and other land managers. Researcher Bethany Cutts was impressed by the complexity of ranching. “There are so many priorities for ranchers in California. There are an amazing number of food quality and environmental regulations that influence what ranchers do every day. In California, it is even more complicated because ranching, other forms of agriculture, and urban development often compete for land.” Mark Lubell, Professor of Environmental Science and Policy, and Cutts hope to determine the most important factors driving grazing decisions using the richness of the interviews with the breadth of the surveys.

Ken Tate, the lead scientist says “We are very interested in rancher perspectives on the value of varying intensity, grazing season, and rest from grazing for ecosystem outcomes. There is a debate among scientists about the degree to which the outcomes we use to implement grazing strategies in field experiments mimic real-world circumstances. We need to know how to vary grazing and what outcomes matter most.”

Tate and others will use the survey results to establish long-term management-scale study to investigate at the University of California’s Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center. The multi-year study will use 200+ commercial-type beef cattle across 33 pastures covering ~1500 hectares of annual rangeland. In a cutting edge approach to research, Tate would like to implement grazing research that manages for the complex factors that exist on ‘real’ rangelands.

“It isn’t settled yet, but we would really like to get a team of diverse ranchers in here to advise us…to look at the field station and say ‘If this was my land, I’d be really concerned about forage quality in that field’ and then come up with a management strategy given the herd size, space, and finances of the station in a way that also meets as many environmental goals as possible. The potential is amazing” said Leslie Roche, who initiated the project with Tate.

Cutts and Lubell are also excited about changes to the Sierra Field Station. Cutts said “This perspective turns what was once a place for ecological research into a place for social and ecological research.” The richness of this system could help to improve upon existing or develop completely new management decision support tools for ranchers. It will also serve as an example for a new research at field stations in Wyoming and Oregon. “Ranchers who participate in the California survey will really have a lasting legacy on rangeland research in the western U.S.” said Tate.

Grant Title: Prescribed Grazing to Enhance California Rangelands, University of California Davis and University of California Cooperative Extension partnering with California Cattlemen’s Association, California Farm Bureau Federation, and the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition. Survey Leaders : Mark Lubell Professor; Bethany Cutts Postdoctoral Researcher; Environmental Science & Policy, University of California, Davis. Principle Investigator: Ken Tate, UCD Plant Sciences and UCCE. For more information, go to http://environmentalpolicy.ucdavis.edu/projects