Australian Rangeland Society

Peter O’Reagain, Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries,  PO Box 976, Charters Towers, QLD 4820. Email: peter.o’reagain@daf.qld.gov.au

 

In February this year, I was lucky enough to have a short study trip to the USA to attend the 70th Society of Range Management Conference in St. George, Utah and visit United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) research sites in Wyoming and Colorado. I squeezed an amazing amount into my two week trip but here I will focus on a few of the highlights.

SRM conference, St George

The SRM conference was very strongly supported with about 1400 people attending. This included research, extension, university and agency staff, and pleasingly, a lot of young people: post grads, undergrads and even high school students. There was a large and diverse range of conference sessions but with most running concurrently it was only possible to attend a small subset. The sessions included:

Technical sessions ongrazing ecology and management, grazing and wildlife interactions, fire ecology, legislative and social aspects of fire, rangeland ecology, the social sciences, invasive species monitoring etc.

Symposiums on sage brush restoration, wild horse and burro (donkey) issues, remote sensing and technology, watershed restoration, rangeland health assessments, pollinator conservation and management in working landscapes etc.

Workshops oncommunicating science to the public, teaching inclusivity andraising the visibility of rangelands through an international year of designation.

Producer Forums oncollaboration to manage for the endangered sage grouse and the use of prescribed herbivory for vegetation treatment projects.

A symposium of particular interest was that on ‘Rangeland health assessments, technology, use and status in USA rangelands’. This focussed on the use of ecological site indicators where the focus is directly on ecosystem function and services as opposed to using vegetation ‘condition’ as a surrogate for soil health etc. The ‘Edit’ software package has also been developed to enter field data and contains an impressive amount of background information on the soils as well as the different states, transitions and drivers of change between states for the many different ecological sites.

During the ‘Grazing Ecology and Management session’ I delivered a paper on the 19 year Wambiana grazing trial that I lead in North Queensland. The paper was very well received with both myself and my co-worker John Bushell (who didn’t attend) even earning a spontaneous round of applause at the end for managing to keep a grazing trial going for so long! (Thanks DAF, MLA etc.).

Overall the quality of the work presented at the SRM conference was excellent and it was an absolute privilege being able to attend. However, possibly the most impressive aspect to me was the high level of participation by the younger generation in the conference. The SRM is to be credited for the large number of activities organised for the next generation of rangeland workers ranging from high school to undergrad and post graduate students as well as early career professionals. Some of these activities included:

  • The Rangeland cup – students develop and then present solutions to a challenging rangeland issue during one of the conference poster sessions. This year 25 universities competed to address the pros and cons of the potential transfer of federal grazing land to the individual states.
  • The Undergraduate range management exam (URME) which is written by all undergraduates attending the SRM, with prizes for the top five team and individual scores. This year a very impressive 199 students sat the URME.
  • Plant ID competition –- here student teams from different universities compete to identify a selection of specimens from a pool of 200 important range plants, sometimes from only a small plant fragment. The night before the competition I was quietly amused to see one university lecturer ordering some students out of the bar and back to their rooms to study!

Students from the Antonio Narro Agrarian Autonomous University near Saltilla in Mexico with their prizes in the SRM plant ID competition.

 

Other activities included high school youth forum presentations,a special oral session for paper presentations by undergraduates and a graduate student competition presenting  papers or posters. There were also dedicated activities for young professionals to develop career skills like training and mentoring for federal job applications, an employment fair and numerous networking activities.

All in all, the active participation of so many younger people in the discipline boosted my morale and instilled a lot of hope in me for the future of rangeland science and extension. It is profoundly sad that the same cannot be said of Australia where rangeland or grassland science departments are almost extinct and young rangeland science graduates are a rare species. And this at a time when millions of dollars are being spent to reduce sediment loss from grazing lands to the Great Barrier Reef Lagoon. Very puzzling!

Lastly there were also some wonderful technical tours at the SRM – I did the Mojave desert/vegetation history tour before and the Zion National Park, after the SRM conference. Both were excellent with great tour leaders, stunning scenery, amazing history and so much to learn. The trip through the spectacular Zion National park was especially memorable: we were fortunate to have a geo-hydrologist as our tour guide with a deep and detailed knowledge of the fascinating geology and natural history of the area. I was, however, staggered to learn that the park had 4.4 million visitors last year. So while a visit is highly recommended, the winter off–season is probably the time to go!

Mojave Desert with mountains in the background – Utah, USA

Grazing exclosure in the Mojave Desert after 30 years

Zion National Park from the air

USDA Rangeland Resources Group Ft Collins & Cheyenne

After the SRM meeting I hired a car in Salt Lake City and then headed east. This started off as a white knuckle drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road (to an Australian) along an 8 lane highway. Luckily, after half an hour or so I hit the 4-lane Interstate 80 and travelled about 8 hours east across Wyoming to Cheyenne. Here I was lucky enough to be home hosted by Justin Derner and his lovely family. Justin leads the USDA Rangelands Resources group based in Cheyenne and nearby Fort Collins, Colorado. While there, I had a wonderfully stimulating time interacting with this great team of scientists and learning about their cutting edge research. I also had the opportunity to give presentations on both the research being conducted by the Queensland Department of Agriculture (QDAF) near Charters Towers and some of the grazing land management issues facing the northern savannas.

A major highlight was visiting the Central Plains Experimental Range (CPER) located in the semi-arid (350 mm) short-grass steppe near Nunn in Colorado.  This was like a pilgrimage to one of the most important and significant sites in range management: so much of our discipline’s history, culture and science has come, and is still coming, from sites such as these that were established in response to the human and environmental devastation experienced in the  great drought of the 1930s and the resultant dustbowl.

The CPER has a grazing trial that is an astonishing 75 years old – although some of the original treatments have gone, the heavy and moderate stocking rate treatments in relatively large 137 ha paddocks, as well as the smaller exclosures, are still largely intact. This has allowed an almost continuous record of pasture composition, yield and animal production to be collected over the last 75 years. Surprisingly, after all this time there are still only relatively minor differences in cover and composition between the different treatments. This partly reflects the fact that the vegetation evolved under very heavy grazing pressure by Bison.  For example, Blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis) one of the dominant grasses is rhizomatous and stores a lot of carbon below ground well out of reach of grazing.

Jeff Thomas, David Augustine & David Hoover discuss the CPER grazing trial in Colorado, USA.  This photo shows the exclosure in the foreground vs moderate stocking rate across the fenceline after 75 years.

David Augustine and Peter O’Reagain (right) check out the species within the CPER exclosure.

Peter O’Reagain (centre) with USDA scientists David Augustine David and Justin Derner within the exclosure.

 

An Adaptive Grazing Management (AGM) project has also been established relatively recently and was of particular interest to me. The project compares adaptive grazing management with set stocking at high and moderate stocking rates. With the adaptive management treatment, the cattle are in one herd rotated around 10 paddocks with a combination of flexible stocking, spelling and fire all applied in an adaptive manner to meet both production and conservation goals (primarily protecting endangered birds). All AGM management decisions are made by a stakeholder group of ranchers, conservation NGOs and one or two agency staff. The basis of all management decisions is to maximise both production and conservation. While the stakeholders have slightly different objectives (production vs conservation), so far the group has worked very well. This adaptive management approach in a grazing trial is very similar to that applied over the last 19 years by QDAF at the Wambiana grazing trial, near Charters Towers.

The CPER is also home to one of the sixteen National Ecological Observation Network (NEON) sites located in a variety of ecosystems across the USA. The NEON site has a large flux-tower measuring, amongst many other things, CO2 and water vapour flux between the earth and atmosphere. Detailed data is also collected on all major soil and plant processes as well as biodiversity. The NEON sites are also remotely sensed each year with airborne LiDAR with the usual hyperspectral bands, N index and NDVI assessed. With the data collection methods standardized across all NEON sites, the focus is very much on large synthesis studies through open data access, collaboration and ‘big data’ approach.

CPER NEON flux tower & plots for above and below ground net primary production measurements.

 

The CPER is also part of the USDA’s Long-Term Agro-ecosystem Research network (LTAR) which focuses on large-scale, long-term (30 year), agricultural and environmental management research and technology transfer. There are currently 10 LTAR sites (five each for rangeland and cropland) with eight of these sites also being NEON sites.  As with NEON, the aim is for multiple sites across different production systems with the sites functioning as a network and addressing common, large scale issues like climate and land use change.

 

King Ranch (Cheyenne)

Another Wyoming highlight was spending a day with rancher Mark Eisele who, with his family, owns the King ranch on the edge of the city of Cheyenne. Mark is a first class manager and has received a number of awards, including the 2015 Aldo Leopold Conservation Award for his dedication to sustainable ranching. Mark runs cows, calves and yearlings on two blocks and also has access to summer grazing on a federal forestry allotment. The property elevation ranges from 1900 m to 2600 m with 380 mm rainfall and a May to October growing season. Weather has a major influence on his operation with most of his cows calving indoors in February and March. I saw and learnt a huge amount while with Mark but given the confines of space will limit myself to a few main points.

Cows and wind turbines on King Ranch in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Pronghorn and white tailed deer on King Ranch

Rancher Mark Eisley next to a wind turbine at King Ranch.

 

First, Mark has to cope with a bewildering range of outside issues that impact either directly or indirectly on his ranching operation. These include a large windfarm, oil wells, a major highway bisecting the property, a large gravel pit, neighbouring housing subdivisions and the city dump. He also has to co-exist with recreational land users like mountain and trail bikers, hikers, hunters and recreational shooters on his summer forestry grazing lease. However, he and his family seem not only to have coped with all these challenges but have engaged with many of the different groups involved and in most cases, negotiated outcomes to everyone’s mutual benefit. There were, nevertheless, a few cases involving legislation, with for example, one conservation group attempting to have grazing banned from forestry lands because of alleged water contamination by cattle. This allegation was later disproved and the court action subsequently dismissed.

Second, I was impressed by the effort put in by the Forestry Department in managing grazing through monitoring and the grazing management recommendations that lessees have to follow.  Thus the ranchers have to rotate their cattle around a four paddock system on the forestry lease with each quarter being grazed at a different time of the season each year. The department also monitors grazing allotments twice yearly and clip exclosures to assess pasture utilisation levels and determine when herds need to be moved. The Bureau of Land Management which manages most of the western public rangelands, apparently monitors less regularly. Nevertheless, this still stands in stark contrast to the minimal on-ground rangeland monitoring conducted Australia.

Lastly, I was intrigued by the differences between the USA and Australia in what an economic unit is considered to be. Thus in Wyoming, a figure of 200-250 cows is considered an economic unit and sufficient to provide a family with a reasonable standard of living. This is in stark contrast to northern Australia where an economic unit is closer to 2000-2500 cows. While there are some very big ranches in western Wyoming running 20 000 – 30 000 cattle, it is interesting that the majority of beef producers in the USA have only around 100 cows on about 3000 acres. Hence, many ranchers seem to need a second job in ensure a reasonable standard of living. This is not dissimilar to Australia where the majority of beef producers have relatively few cattle with a few very big players producing the bulk (80%) of beef.

In conclusion, I thoroughly recommend attending the next SRM meeting and not only being exposed to all that is happening in the very active rangelands field in the USA but also showcasing the great research and extension being done in Australia.

 

Acknowledgements

Thank you to the ARS for their generous contribution towards my study trip. I also thank all the wonderfully kind SRM friends in the USA especially Urs Kreuter and Justin Derner for helping to make my trip so memorable and stimulating.