Posts Tagged: rangeland
California is searching for solutions to the wildfire crisis. Livestock ranchers believe they can help.
At the 14th Annual Rangeland Summit in Stockton in January, more than 150 ranchers, public land managers and representatives of non-profit organizations that work on land conservation gathered to share research and experiences that outline the value of cattle and sheep grazing on rangeland.
Since California was settled by Europeans, cattle and sheep have been an integral part of the state's history.
“Cattle can control brush,” said Lynn Huntsinger, UC Cooperative Extension specialist at UC Berkeley in a presentation on brush management. She discussed research she conducted in the early 1980s to understand the role of cattle in Sierra Nevada brush control.
“We need to make livestock into firefighters,” she said. “Constant, deliberate, targeted grazing is needed for fire management.”
However, thick, overgrown brush requires intensive treatment that cattle can't handle on their own.
“You have to start from a good place,” Huntsinger said. “Start early, such as post fire. Plan when you have a blank slate for the forest you want.”
The tragic loss of homes and lives to wildfire in the last few years has increased the public demand for answers and action. However, the reasons for greater frequency and intensity of wildfire are not well understood.
“Is it climate change? Past decisions? Land use? What can we do about it?” asked UC Cooperative Extension specialist Van Butsic. “Research.”
At the summit, Butsic presented the results of his recent research to determine whether ownership has an impact upon whether land will burn. He and his colleagues studied the burn histories of forest and rangeland areas that were matched with the same characteristics, except in ownership.
“We controlled for all factors – slope, elevation, the likelihood of ignition,” he said. “We found that on forest and rangeland, federal ownership led to .3 percent higher fire probability. Ownership is dwarfing the impact of climate change.”
There is still much more research to be done.
“We can't say the impact of grazed vs. ungrazed land,” Butsic said. “We also need to look at fire severity as well as fire frequency.”
The UC Cooperative Extension advisor in Modoc County, Laura Snell, shared preliminary results at the rangeland summit that provide information for landowners making decisions about returning livestock to burned areas.
She and a team of colleagues studied the fire history of U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management rangeland in Lassen and Modoc counties where fires had burned through 5, 10 and 15 years before. The dataset included information about whether the land was “rested” for two years after the fire, or whether livestock were returned to graze soon after the blaze.
The scientists set out to determine whether fire intensity and climate at the site (measured by soil temperature and moisture) had an impact on the future diversity of plant species and growth of cheat grass, an invasive species that animals don't like.
“No matter what we did, graze or not graze, after 15 years, the species richness stayed the same,” Snell said. “Grazing was not the driving factor.”
The results are also important in terms of fuels accumulation and the prevention of future wildfires.
“Federal land managers have typically used a policy to rest the land for two years after a fire. During the interval, the fuels sometimes burn again and livestock producers have to wait another two years,” Snell said. “Our research showed you don't necessarily need to rest the land after the fire.”
Two ranchers who were recently impacted by wildfire presented their experiences and perspectives during the rangeland summit.
Mike Williams of Diamond W Cattle Company had livestock on 6,500 acres of leased land in Ventura County when the Thomas Fire ignited on Dec. 4, 2017. Over more than a month, the fire burned 281,893 acres and consumed 1,000 structures.
Williams had stockpiled feed on certain pastures by limiting grazing, which during the fire turned into hazardous fuel.
Adam Cline, rangeland manager for the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation Preserve in the Capay Valley, had a similar experience when the County Fire burned more than 90,000 acres in western Yolo and eastern Napa counties in June and July 2018. To reserve feed for later, Cline had left 2,500 pounds per acre of residual dry matter on grazing land as a drought mitigation strategy. He said he plans to reconsider this grazing plan.
“Now, cattle feed looks like a lot of fuel,” he said.
“When first-generation ranchers succeed, we all succeed,” says Kate Munden-Dixon, a Ph.D. student working with Leslie Roche, Cooperative Extension rangeland specialist with the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources and the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences.
Munden-Dixon and Roche recently discovered that many new livestock managers aren't plugged into information networks such as UC Cooperative Extension and rancher coalitions that provide science and strategies for making sustainable rangeland management decisions. This lack of connection can make first-generation ranchers more vulnerable when dealing with challenges like drought and climate variability, according to their study, which was recently published in Rangeland Journal.
To help bridge the gap, Munden-Dixon landed a $25,000 Graduate Student Grant from Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, a USDA program, to reach out to new ranchers and rangeland managers.
Why rangelands matter
More than one half of California — 38 million acres — is rangeland that provides open space, healthy watersheds, carbon storage, food, fiber and habitat for diverse plants and wildlife. UC Davis research indicates grasslands and rangeland have become more resilient at sequestering or consuming carbon dioxide pollution than forests in California, making them especially important in a warming world.
But rangeland and livestock production are at risk because more rangeland is being converted to housing and crop production. The average age of ranchers in California is 62, and fewer children are taking over the family ranch.
Enter a new wave of rangeland managers. Many of these young ranchers don't yet have access to the capital required to purchase land and large head of cattle and other livestock. Instead, they often contract with public and private landowners to graze goats, sheep and cattle to restore landscapes and reduce fire vegetation.
“What we really need is support in connecting land and contract opportunities,” says Brittany Cole Bush, an “urban shepherdess” and former contract sheep and goat grazer. She now consults with land owners and public agencies from her home base in Southern California. “We need market research that shows the value that grazing brings to fire abatement, soil conservation and so much more. Market research would increase our value and help us become viable players.”
Munden-Dixon is interviewing 40 new rangeland managers from across California to explore how decision-making by different demographics influences adaptation to climate change and quality of life. Munden-Dixon and her team are also hosting workshops to make sure Cooperative Extension specialists understand and can respond to all ranchers' needs.
“There is both a need and opportunity for a new generation of livestock managers that is able to adapt to California's changing climate,” Munden-Dixon says. “This next generation may not look like your typical rancher, so we want to ensure organizations are helping all ranchers succeed, regardless of their demographics or land tenure.”
The power of connection
Munden-Dixon would like to become a Cooperative Extension specialist herself one day. Working with first-generation ranchers reminds her that collaboration and public engagement are critical to addressing issues in sustainable agriculture.
“There is no one answer or single expert when it comes to building healthy food systems,” Munden-Dixon says. “We find solutions when we work together.”
Most Americans envision healthy mustangs galloping free on the range when they think about the country's wild horse population. But UC Cooperative Extension rangeland advisor Laura Snell sees another image.
In conducting research on the over-populated wild horse territory at Devil's Garden Plateau in Modoc County, she witnesses a group of horses visiting a dwindling and damaged pond.
“Maybe there is enough for the lead stallion and the lead mare to drink. The rest stand there and look longingly at the diminished water source,” Snell said. “They do not seem content.”
The research Snell has underway at Devil's Garden was chronicled in the current issue of California Agriculture journal by executive editor Jim Downing. The federal government has determined the ideal horse population on the 230,000 acres of wild horse territory is no more than 402, however, more than 2,000 wild horses are running on the land.
Snell began working in the remote northeast corner of California in 2015.
“I had Modoc County ranchers coming up to me on my second day of work asking me how to solve the wild horse issue,” she said.
She realized that agencies and authorities responsible for policies that determine the horses' fate, and advocates who lobby strongly that the horses should be cared for humanely, don't see the poor conditions suffered by the horses and the environmental degradation of the land.
“The area is a quarter million acres in size. There are no main roads, so you have to take ATVs to see the horses,” Snell said. “We realized we needed to provide visuals to show people the horses and what the landscape looks like due to unmanaged grazing by the wild horses.”
Snell places wildlife cameras for two-week periods near 24 remote water sources in wild horse territory in Modoc and Lassen counties. At each site, the camera takes a burst of three pictures automatically every 15 minutes; motion detectors on the cameras also trigger a shot whenever an animal enters the field of view.
Preliminary data from 2015 show some striking findings. At one spring site, for instance, more than 71 percent of all animals detected over the sampling period were horses. Cattle accounted for 19 percent and the rest were pronghorn antelope, deer and hawks. The study will continue through 2017.
Wild horses are running in the Devil's Garden territory, and outside the territory, on private and tribal land. Fences don't hold the horses in, Snell said. Federal wild horse management areas are intended for multiple uses, including livestock grazing, hunting, and wildlife habitat. But in Devil's Garden, livestock have been excluded because of the environmental degradation.
“It was never intended to be single use area,” Snell said. “The horses are gorgeous animals, but I also like to see pronghorn, elk and mule deer. Some groups of wild horses are getting large and studs are getting aggressive. I know people who no longer ride their personal horses because it's not really safe with the territorial nature of the stallions.”
The images and data from Snell's research are designed to inform management and policy decisions in hopes of easing the expensive and environmentally harmful wild horse over-population. Already U.S. Representative Doug LaMalfa (R-Oroville) has brought the study to the House Committee on Natural Resources and preliminary results have been shared with Bureau of Land Management's Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board.
UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) advisor is among the scientists who contributed to the rangeland issue of the children's magazine.
Jr. Animal Scientist is published by the American Society of Animal Science for children aged 5 to 12 who are interested in animals. For the September 2015 issue, members of the Society for Range Management collaborated with ASAS to provide photos and facts about rangeland.
Theresa Becchetti, UC ANR Cooperative Extension livestock and natural resource advisor for Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties, and Lisa Page, from the University of Arizona, served as co-editors for the special issue.
“Our goal is to have kids and their parents and teachers learn the value of rangelands, beyond being used to produce beef and lamb; they also provide habitat for wildlife,” said Becchetti. “Rangelands can produce energy – solar, wind and oil – while providing clean water and air and a place for recreation. These resources are protected by ranching families, the stewards who make their homes on rangeland.”
“As a member of the Society for Range Management, and working on developing curriculum on rangelands in California, I was excited to be involved in the effort,” Becchetti said. “The magazine has a national circulation with a mix of families and schools.”
A PDF of the Jr. Animal Scientist rangeland issue can be viewed at http://ucanr.edu/sites/news/files/220859.pdf.
Such incidents, though rare, prompted UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) experts to write guidelines for people who hike, cycle or ride horses in natural areas where grazing cattle are used to manage the land. The four-page publication, Sharing Open Space: What to Expect from Grazing Livestock, is available for free download from the UC ANR online catalog.
“Areas that were traditionally rangelands, especially in urban counties, are more and more often becoming parklands,” said Stephanie Larson, UC ANR Cooperative Extension livestock advisor in Sonoma County and lead author of the publication. “State parks generally remove grazing, but we didn't want to see that at regional and county parks.”
Cattle grazing can provide important services to these working landscapes, like managing the vegetation, reducing fire hazards, increasing water capture, and promoting the diversity of plant. With education, Larson believes, people who hike, bike and horseback ride can coexist peacefully with the cattle.
Cattle may seem intimidating because of their size, but they are vulnerable to attack by coyotes and other predators. As prey animals, cows naturally experience and express fear and protective behavior, especially when unfamiliar people and animals are near and to protect their young.
Cattle can feel threatened by dogs, which they will perceive as predators. The guidelines recommend keeping dogs close and under complete control at all times. Just like people, dogs should never get between a cow and her calf.
The guidelines detail typical cattle posture when relaxed and when agitated, their response to intrusions into their personal space (or “flight zone”), and reactions to loud noises.
“Unless you need to move cattle out of your way, such as move them off a narrow trail, it's best to give them plenty of space and avoid their flight zone altogether,” the guidelines advise.
Injured cattle should be reported and left alone. The guidelines suggest people never approach a cow from behind, make quick movements or flap their arms, or try to “rescue” calves that seem to be separated from their mothers.
“The mother may be off drinking or eating, and will return to the baby,” the authors write. “She may even be watching you.”
Co-authors of the guidelines with Larson are Sheila Barry, UC ANR livestock and natural resources advisor in the Bay Area, and rangeland management consultant Lisa Bush.
An initiative to maintain and enhance sustainable natural ecosystems is part of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Strategic Vision 2025.