Posts Tagged: Rangeland
Scientific evidence of a warming climate in California and across the globe is clear, but the impacts on ecosystems and agriculture are still difficult to predict.
Sophisticated computer models are used to forecast future climate. Understanding that temperature and precipitation levels will change in the future does not tell the full story: UC Agriculture and Natural Resources researchers also want real-world experience under those future conditions.
Moreover, some agricultural operations have higher sensitivity to the changes than others. Rangeland forage is particularly sensitive to climate changes since, unlike irrigated agriculture, ranchers rely solely on precipitation. They have no control over how much and when it rains.
“It's tricky business,” said rangeland expert Jeremy James, the director of the UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center in Browns Valley. “It's not easy to forecast. We have to address the uncertainty in a realistic manner.”
Discovering climate change impact on rangeland
In order to study different climate projections on rangeland, James and Maggi Kelly, director of the UC ANR Informatics and Global Information Systems special program, have begun development of a research site that will allow scientists to manipulate the temperature and rainfall on sections of rangeland to understand what would happen under predicted weather scenarios.
“We need to know how rangelands will respond when conditions change,” James said. “Will we grow more, but dry out earlier? Will we have more medusahead (an undesirable rangeland weed) or more soft chess (a high quality forage)?”
When complete, 16 shelters on steel tracks will be connected to computer systems and hydraulic motors to move them up or down a research plot. The shelters and other equipment will allow scientists to precisely control the amount of precipitation (or irrigation water) that rains onto the plot. Other systems will give researchers control of air temperature.
“This facility isn't designed for one type of research,” James said. “It is designed to conduct a wide variety of research by scientists over the next several decades. With this setup, we can look at the effect of climate change on soil biological communities, soil carbon, insect communities, plant-insect interactions and oak seedling recruitment.”
The research results from the project should provide ranchers and land managers a better understanding of how climate change may impact agriculture and ecosystem function on rangeland while also providing important information on how to minimize impacts of these changes.
Some aspects of the research facility's development are not covered with funding from the National Science Foundation. The scientists are looking for additional support to complete the project.
For more information, contact James at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Current work underway at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center
The Sierra Foothill REC, a 5,000-acre facility on the Yuba River, has supported research, education and outreach in the Sierra foothills since 1960. Multiple lines of research are being conducted at SFREC. During a recent workshop, scientists from UC Davis, UC Berkeley and UC Cooperative Extension shared a sampling of their work at SFREC.
UCCE livestock and natural resources advisor Dan Macon described a project aimed at helping ranchers make decisions about maintaining a cattle herd when faced with impending drought. Ranchers are reluctant to sell off their cattle even when the near future weather forecast is dire.
“Science tells us you shouldn't feed your way out of a drought,” Macon said. “But you want everything to stay the same. You want to maintain your genetic potential and keep cows that are familiar with the area.”
Working with ranchers, the research project will compare management practices to determine the best way forward when the future looks meteorologically bleak.
“We're assigning cows to a traditional weaning and early weaning groups,” Macon said. “They'll be out on the range from March to early September under different parameters. We're also tying in economics, the value of genetic potential and the value of having cows who know the landscape.”
Research by University of Oregon post doctorate researcher Ashley Shaw is looking into whether compost applied to rangeland will help mitigate climate change by sequestering more carbon, and also benefit forage under drought by increasing the soil's water-holding capacity and improving nutrient delivery.
Preliminary results are promising. A single application of 1/4-inch of compost resulted in forage production that was higher than areas where no amendment was applied and areas that were treated with a chemical fertilizer.
“The biggest impact was under drought shelters,” said Shaw, referring to PVC frames that were covered with plastic during rain events to understand the impact of the treatment under dry conditions. “In the drought plots, the areas where compost was applied are staying green longer.”
A defining research tool at SFREC is a dataset that includes information on monthly rainfall and forage production going back 40 years.
A review of the data shows surprising variations and correlations at the center, where forage production averages 3,000 pounds per acre, but ranges from about 1,000 pounds per acre in 1987, to over 5,000 pounds per acre in 2018, when there was so much growth, “we didn't have enough animals to graze,” James said.
The dataset paints a spectrum of the variation that ranchers across the state must navigate to manage their livestock and rangeland in a way that is profitable and ecologically sound. Research at the Sierra Foothill REC offers invaluable information to help them better understand the ecosystem and make informed decisions.
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.”
The Ventura County Cattlemen's Association publicly thanked UC Cooperative Extension and other organizations for their support during the devastating wildfires of late 2017.
In the space of 12 hours, the Thomas Fire ripped through vital grazing land that cattle rely on for their daily feed. Some animals were also killed in the fire. In a letter to the Ventura County Star, Beverly Bigger, president of the Ventura County Cattlemen's Association, said UCCE livestock and range advisor Matthew Shapero, the Ventura County agricultural commissioner and representatives of Ventura County animal services established an emergency program to supply five days of hay until ranchers could get on their feet.
UC Cooperative Extension also served as a one-stop location where ranchers could meet with representatives from multiple agencies to apply for assistance programs.
"We want to thank and recognize them for helping us in our time of need. We look forward to returning to our passion: managing and improving the land and continuing Ventura County's ranching heritage," Bigger wrote.
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.