Strategies for sustainable livestock grazing

May 28, 2010
by WLJ

The growth of grasses on South Dakota rangeland provides forage for livestock, habitat for wildlife, and a number of ecosystem services. For ranchers, grass growth affects the health and profitability of the cattle they graze as well as the value of their land.

An article in the March 2010 issue of Rangeland Ecology & Management contrasts the long-term production and profitability of rangelands in western South Dakota that were in varying range conditions, from excellent to good to low-fair. The study spans 34 years, from 1969 to 2002, and addresses the economic parameters of annual total gross income, annual total expenses, and annual net income per hectare (2.47 acres).

For conservationists and rangeland professionals, conventional wisdom has long held that grazing livestock on rangeland in good to excellent condition, rather than in a lesser condition, is the most productive, both ecologically and economically. Heavy grazing can lead to changes in the plant species present and a decline in range condition. Yet, ranchers generally maintain a lower level of range condition and neither profitability nor sustainability have been negatively affected.

Results from this 34-year record show that profit actually increased for the good and low-fair condition range through time, while it remained steady in excel lent condition range. Range in low-fair condition supported a higher stocking rate indicating that ranchers are acting in a manner that is both sustainable and profitable over the long term.

However, this practice may not be the most beneficial to the environment and society at large, and incentives may be needed to take ranchers in a different direction.— WLJ