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Success Story

NRCS Helps Ranchers and Land Managers with Challenging Rangeland Management Balancing Act

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Range management is a challenging balancing act, juggling the forage needs of the herd, with other needs of the operation.  During National Forage Week, June 16-22, learn more about NRCS resources to help ranchers and other rangeland owners.

By Laura Crowell, NRCS Natural Resources Communications Specialist

The rangelands of the American West have long been recognized for their rugged beauty in western novels, films, songs, and poetry. They are historically romanticized in the well-known song, “Home on the Range,” written nearly 150 years ago. But they are also recognized for their economic and environmental importance—especially each June during National Forage Week (June 16 – 22).

These vast ecosystems, which include various types of ground cover including grasslands, like savannas, and mountain meadows and deserts, cover about 30 percent of the entire U.S. or about 770 million acres. In fact, they form the largest single land cover/use type in the U.S. The sustainability and economic prosperity of most of these acres relies on the management decisions and conservation treatments of private landowners, who own two-thirds of U.S. rangeland.

Along with scenic beauty, well-managed rangelands provide many benefits, or ecosystem services, like diverse wildlife habitat, improved soil health and water quality, nutrient cycling, and reduced erosion. The amounts and quality of these benefits heavily rely on how the rangeland is managed.

At best, rangeland management is a challenging balancing act, juggling the forage needs of the herd, with climate variations, natural resource concerns like invasive species and water quantity, forage conditions and growth, livestock health, and the economic needs of the operation.

Range photo with cowboy on horse

Ranchers must balance the needs of their herds with forage production and other goals for their operation.

But these important decision makers are not alone on the range. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) provides technical assistance from locally-based rangeland management specialists who help plan conservation grazing systems that improve the quality of forage and other grazing land functions. NRCS also offers Farm Bill conservation program financial assistance for various rangeland management practices, like brush management, prescribed burning, range planting, and prescribed grazing.

And through the NRCS Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP), there are data-based resources to inform conservation decisions as managers continually adapt to the needs of their herd and the conditions of their rangelands. For example, CEAP Grazing Land and their partners have two recent publications that showcase the importance of NRCS’ Prescribed Grazing conservation practice for ranchers and for ecosystem services on western rangelands.

The article, Financial barriers and opportunities for conservation adoption on U.S. rangelands: A region-wide, ranch-level economic assessment of NRCS-sponsored Greater Sage-grouse habitat conservation programs discusses how financial support from NRCS can reduce the financial burden for large, private ranches in the Greater Sage Grouse region.

Forage Week sage grouse

Greater Sage Grouse flourish in healthy rangeland habitat.

“Researchers from the University of Wyoming found that larger ranches, around 16,000 acres or greater, benefit when they adopt prescribed grazing,” said Carrie-Ann Houdeshell, co-lead for CEAP Grazing Land. “With prescribed grazing, forage benefits will increase and the forage costs per acre may be reduced with financial assistance.” Many factors impact the total outcomes value for ranches across all size classes and this research informs how conservation planning can help balance the interaction of those factors.

In a more extensive publication on private and federally-managed rangelands, Earth Economics, CEAP-Grazing Land, and the University of Arizona looked at the value of 13 ecosystem services in key western states. They evaluated three conservation practices, including prescribed grazing, applied between 2011 and 2020 on more than 351 million acres across 11 western states.

“For the 2,900 NRCS contracts for prescribed grazing in this region, ecosystem services increased up to $5/acre per year in value when comparing the value of pre- and post-practice application,” said Houdeshell. “The three ecosystem services most impacted by implementing prescribed grazing are carbon sequestration, soil fertility, and wildlife habitat. This study highlights the positive effects that conservation practices have on ecosystem services across an extensive part of the western United States.”

Forage Week Rangephoto

NRCS offers many data-based resources and tools, along with technical and financial assistance to assist ranchers and others make decisions on how to best manage their forage and rangeland.

CEAP Grazing Land provides additional resources that would be useful to rangeland managers and forage producers. Some of these include:

  • The Rangeland Soil Vulnerability Index for Water Erosion Web Tool, which identifies rangeland areas that are susceptible to water erosion when dry and unvegetated. Users may leverage this to identify the need for proactive conservation measures before potential issues – such as rangeland health, soil stability, water infiltration, plant productivity, and invasive species – become problematic.
  • The Rangeland Brush Estimation Tool, which estimates woody plant canopy cover over time. Users may leverage this to assess woody encroachment for an area that extends from Arizona to Texas and north into Colorado and Nebraska.

From data-based decision support tools to one-on-one technical assistance, NRCS provides resources to help ranchers balance forage needs with the economic and conservation goals for their operations. To find NRCS in your local area, go to our USDA Service Center locator.