Sustainable ranch lessons from land
Rancher experience and knowledge is an untapped resource that could help broaden the scope of conservation activities and lead to more sustainable land management. Researchers gathered and codified the knowledge of ranchers in northwest Colorado; their results appear in the journal Rangeland Ecology and Management.
Ranchers gain most of their knowledge through personal experiences and from family and friends. This knowledge is traditionally not recorded until now.
• Shrub control is used by ranchers to increase grass production.
• 81% of the ranchers interviewed talked about the impact of drought.
• Range resilience, despite drought, does not rob land productivity.
Half of ranchers interviewed spoke about the importance of managing the timing of grazing. As one rancher said, ‘‘Part of the range management plan was not to put cattle in until September when the grass was mature and heading out; and there was a chance that the cattle would scatter the seed and trap it in the ground, and we ended up with some very good pastures.’’
Sheep ranchers, who rely on seasonal ranges, described the importance of diversity to provide for livestock. One suggested that ‘‘You only need a bite [of some of the forbs], but they need that bite, and if you destroy that bite a day, then without that plant they [the livestock] won’t do as well.’’
Many ranchers were also interested in increasing productivity and used some type of shrub control — either mechanical, chemical, or fire — to increase grass production, and leaving some standing dead shrubs to capture snow and prevent wind erosion. Several ranchers also perceived the negative effects of shrub treatments on water infiltration, erosion and herbaceous species diversity.
Livestock do not use all parts of a landscape equally and spend the most time in riparian areas, where shade and water are available. As one rancher said, “The cows hang out right down in the trees by the river. They get up early and walk around and then lie around till noon or so, and go out and eat a little bit and then go back to the shade.’’ In response, ranchers used cross-fencing, water developments, herding and salting to improve livestock distribution.
Ranchers see disturbances, such as drought, as part of the natural function of rangeland ecosystems. As one rancher put it, ‘‘When I was younger I thought it [drought] was a problem, but now I have realized that drought is a part of this country.’’ 81% of the ranchers interviewed talked about the impact of drought on specific places.
75% identified heavy grazing as creating vegetation change. As one rancher said succinctly, ‘‘If you have a lot of mouths hitting it hard and not having anything else to pick from, then yes, it is going to degrade the land.’’
Ranchers differentiate between livestock and wildlife grazing, as wildlife is more challenging to control. One explained, “The problem with wildlife is that you can’t control what they do and you can’t control the numbers —and sometimes you have too many.’’
One rancher explained. “Most of the forbs come back pretty well, and the grasses, but it is difficult to get the brush back in.’’ They described how annual weeds are often the first species to colonize a disturbed area, but also observed that perennial native species will eventually outcompete them.
As one rancher said, ‘‘You get cheatgrass and some weedy forbs at first, but then the grasses come back and take the forbs out.’’
Rancher indicators of land health include plant diversity, productivity, canopy cover, amount of bare ground, lack of non-native and invasive species and absence of erosion; in riparian areas they include multi-aged tree stands and bank stability.
Elkhead drainage ranchers described how regional soils have a propensity to slough off following heavy rain or snowmelt events.
Ranchers identified how management can affect bank stability, saying, ‘‘The least healthy part of the creek is through the dryland hay, because there is nothing holding the banks. It isn’t really head-cutting, but it is slumping.’’
All of the ranchers were experiencing an extended drought, but disagreed about whether it was cyclical or represented long-term climate change.
Ranchers see these systems through good years and poor years, and they were suggesting that although the landscape experienced disturbance, it did not lose its inherent productivity or change its fundamental processes.
As one rancher expressed, ‘‘The most amazing thing about the big picture is how resilient the country is.’’
This article published in the March, 2010 edition of CALIFORNIA FARMER.