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Graduate research project attempts to address adaptive grazing management

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

How do ranchers make decisions? This is a question researchers all over the world want answered, so with the help of 17 family ranches in southeastern Wyoming and northeastern Colorado, Hailey Wilmer is attempting to address it.

Wilmer, who is a graduate research assistant for rangeland social-ecological systems at Colorado State University (CSU), is working on a research project that evaluates how ranchers make decisions and adapt grazing management.

Evaluating decision-making

“My project is focused on listening to ranchers,” Wilmer said.

During this three-year study, Wilmer is following family ranches and monitoring their ecological outcomes based on how they make decisions. She has evaluated how their grazing and social systems work and how that influences the plant habitat and what’s happening on the ground.

“I’m focusing on adaptation – what the rancher is doing and why it is or isn’t working,” she said.

The goal of the project is to eventually develop decision-support tools and ways to connect with mentors who have already dealt with a problem another rancher may be facing.

“Researchers around the world are starting to recognize the importance of the ecological component of rangeland and how it relates to the social component. We are trying to do a better job of linking the two because usually one gets selected before the other,” she added.

The study basically comes down to animals, plants, soil and their relationships to one another and the ecosystem, Wilmer said.

“We recognize that people who have lived off the land for a long time can teach us a lot about the ecology and central systems because they know a lot more about that land,” she commented.

Wilmer wants to develop a working rangelands concept.

“The idea is to have thriving social communities that care about rangeland and extensive systems. They can produce high-quality protein for human consumption while maintaining ecosystems that are connected and supported by biodiversity and cultural heritage that support a sense of place and spiritual connection but also provide food,” she explained.

Two-pronged approach

The research is two-fold. Wilmer is also looking at what approaches to grazing management ranchers in Colorado and Wyoming are using to adapt. If they are complex systems, what ecological differences might be correlated with these approaches?

“The goal is to link these two systems,” she said. “There are all sorts of drivers of change in ranching that we have to wake up and deal with each day. The question is, what can we do to improve our ecology and maintain our social system?”

Wilmer conducts interviews with each of these ranches on an annual basis and gathers information on the decisions they made, how those decisions changed and what happened as a result of these decisions.

Changing tides

“We have seen some changes,” Wilmer said. “We started in Wyoming in 2012 when they went through the drought. We saw some interesting reorganization of these places. Drought is devastating to people psychologically and socially, but it can also be an opportunity for people to reorganize.”

“I have seen several cases where who’s running the ranch and how the ranch operates is completely different when going through drought,” she said.

During this research, Wilmer has also realized that women play an important role in maintaining cultural and technical knowledge of ranching, as well as helping people decide if they want to stay in ranching.

“I think women play an important role in mentoring and training the next generation of ranchers,” she said.

Using the results

As a result of this research, Wilmer has found that these communities have really strong ways of planning and training the next generation.

“We just need to make it financially possible for them,” she stated.

“People are starting to recognize the role of ranchers in conservation and beef production,” Wilmer continued. “Don’t be surprised if there is more interest from the public in the future about how something is done and why it is done this way.”

Wilmer transcribed the interviews and, using that information, tried to write them into management approaches.

“I didn’t ask them what their stocking rate is or how often they move the cattle. What I wanted was to get a general feel for the differences in management approaches on a broad scale,” she said.

Grouping results

The ranches were basically sorted into three groups.

The first group uses an open-range approach where their management system is based on topography and the weather.

“Where the cattle are what time of year is dependent on the weather and topography,” she explained. “These ranchers are not what we call rotational grazers.”

The second group of ranchers has a less-intense rotational grazing system. The cattle are moved about every 30 days. These ranchers focus on a timeline for their grazing that helps them be more resilient in drought and also get better distribution.

“These are people that may have five sections, and each pasture is a section,” she said.

The final group is the holistic grazers that rotate their cattle frequently and are intent on infrastructure.

System ecology

In evaluating these different management techniques, Wilmer looked at the ecology of each system.

“I was interested in what’s covering the ground,” she said. “It helps us to know what is happening to the trajectory of the plant community by actually measuring the base of the plant.”

On each ranch, Wilmer measured three plots. She evaluated the most productive and least productive pastures and then a random pasture on the ranch.

“I wanted to evaluate if there are differences in basal cover between these groups of ranchers across their regions,” she said.

“I was looking for patterns between those productivity categories in each plot and also those management approaches,” she continued.

She also looked at the environmental variables.

“I calculated the difference between plots in terms of species composition, and then I laid vectors over the top to see if environmental or management variables have anything to do with what’s different,” she said.

As a result of this research, Wilmer found groups one and two to be similar, but the third group was different mainly because of rainfall.

“Rainfall is more important than management,” she said.

Other differences she noticed were litter on the soil, the presence of blue grama  and whether the management was first generation or multi-generational.

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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