Grazing Management Key to Profitable Use of Rangeland
By Donald Stotts

STILLWATER, Okla. — Proper use of rangeland resources can help producers overcome the potentially costly struggle of turning investment into profit.

"In order to achieve the highest net return, efficient use of rangeland requires appropriate management of stocking rate," said Terry Bidwell, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension rangeland ecology specialist.

Bidwell said grazing management should be the first consideration in all programs. Determining the carrying capacity for a ranch is the initial step.

"The carrying capacity is the stocking rate that is sustainable over time which maintains the rangeland ecosystem without unnatural soil erosion or loss of biological diversity," Bidwell said.

If livestock are continually grazed at a stocking rate higher than the carrying capacity, then production of forage species and livestock production decline while requirements for supplemental feed and weed control increase.

"Although a heavy stocking rate may make a producer more income in the short term, it results in increased economic risk and degradation of natural resources," Bidwell said. "Large fluctuations in income can be disastrous if a producer encounters a series of years of unfavorable weather conditions, low prices or high production costs."

Recommended stocking rates for rangeland are based on light to moderate use of an operation's annual forage production and uniform grazing distribution.

"Producers need to determine the most effective means of optimizing harvest efficiency by understanding how and when plants grow, and when supplemental feeding is necessary," Bidwell said.

There are several methods available to improve utilization, including additional fencing, seasonal deferment, placement of supplements and minerals, artificial shade and prescribed fire. Grazing systems also can be used to change the plant community.

Continuous grazing generally allows high individual animal performance and diet selectivity, but reduce harvest efficiency. The only way to alter continuous year-round grazing is to increase or decrease the stocking rate.

"Plant species diversity and habitat structure is highest with continuous stocking at a moderate rate," Bidwell said. "This improves habitat for a variety of wildlife such as bobwhite quail on native rangelands."

A second form of grazing is rotational grazing, in which a herd of livestock is relocated among two or more pastures. Pasture can be fenced with either permanent or temporary, usually electric, fencing.

"The potential advantages of rotational grazing include reduction of labor cost, equipment and livestock management, as well as an increase in harvest efficiency," Bidwell said. "However, rotational grazing can reduce habitat structural and species diversity for many wildlife species. Wildlife management should always be considered because of its economic potential on native grazing lands."

Bidwell said use of a properly designed grazing system with other management tools such as prescribed fire can further improve the investment-to-cost return of range resources.

"With the rapid increase in brush such as eastern redcedar, a landowner who doesn't burn will be out of business in terms of both livestock and wildlife, sooner or later," Bidwell said.

Producers seeking additional information about grazing management on rangeland should contact their local OSU Cooperative Extension county office, usually listed under "County Government" in most telephone directories.