AoR 1: Karen Launchbaugh, Grazing Philosophy

Guest Dr. Karen Launchbaugh and host Tip Hudson discuss grazing management philosophies, changes in scientific understanding of plant community dynamics over the last 50 years, and grazing terminology. 


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>> Welcome to The Art of Range, a podcast focused on rangelands and the people who manage them. I'm your host Tip Hudson, range and livestock specialist with Washington State University Extension. The goal of this podcast is education and conservation through conversation. Find us online at

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My guest for this inaugural episode of the podcast is Dr. Karen Launchbaugh from the University of Idaho. I've known Karen for more than 20 years and I know of no one more fitting to help launch the first rangeland management podcast ever. Karen, welcome to the show.

>> You're very kind. I'm happy to be here.

>> Can you give a brief history of man's approach to understanding and managing rangelands, particularly in the semiarid range lands of the Western US?

>> A good place to start. As you know and hopefully many people realize that rangelands are all across the globe. So it's not like we're reinventing something out here the West. The rangelands have been managed for 10,000 years at least and they're in every continent, you know, on the globe, about half of the world, but it's different here in the plains and in the Western US. This is where range management started. So the actual application of trying to understand how plants grow and how that's related to soils and creating range management practices, that started in the plains, started in Nebraska, in Texas, North Dakota, kind of all up along the plains where the first principles range management started. So a lot of what we are managing here on the other side of the Rockies, west of the Rockies, are based on principles that were created in different ecosystem. So one of the challenges that we face out West is that it's different than some of the principles that were originally set down. I want to emphasize that range is not an old profession. Although we've been managing rangelands for a long time, the first PhDs in range came in the '60s and so like the first textbook of range management was in the '40s and '50s, the first kind of guidelines. So it's a new profession. We have a lot to learn and much of what we learn in the plains we're trying to apply it out West. And so that some of the big changes, big differences out on our side of the Rockies as opposed to the plains, the biggest one is that we get our precipitation early in the season. In the plains, they get it in June and July. I grew up in North Dakota, so it's really common to get rain in June and, you know, into July, but out here, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, out here in the West, we get most of our precipitation, if you don't have things by first of June, you're pretty much not a lot of precipitation after that. So for me that's one of the biggest differences. So I don't know if you see other things. You know, you've lived out West all your life. I don't know. See if there's something I missed.

>> And the variability from year to year in the amount of precipitation that we receive seems to be, the variability seems to be higher than what you experience in the Midwest.

>> Oh, absolutely and especially on rangeland versus forested or other ecosystems, something that really defines rangelands is huge year-to-year variation. You know, one to three, four times precipitation one year versus the next. And certainly as it gets more arid, that variation gets more and more profound.

>> And the difference in the timing of precipitation probably drives the difference in the type of plant communities that are dominant even more than the relative aridity. How do the different type of plant community affect how they respond to grazing?

>> You know, that's a good question. In the plains, they have both cool and warm season plants. So that a growing season, the grazing season is much longer. [Inaudible] varies from North Dakota where we have more cool season and less warm season to Texas, opposite of the mix, but still they have that mix. Out here in the West and especially the Pacific Northwest, we're pretty much cool season grasses, pretty much C3 grasses. So that changes when for just greening up and sort of that there's always plants kind of following the same trajectory in their production.

>> Karen, if someone asked you what are the dominant grazing philosophies that are in use, I guess both in the natural resources academia and in the ranching community, what would be your answer? I see both in academia and in the ranching world some conflict between the Savory proponents who would say graze it hard, graze it fast and give it a long rest period and managers and researchers that have a lot of experience who argue for, you know, a reasonable stocking rate combined with efforts to distribute animals on the landscape and that that should be sufficient without attempting to more aggressively control grazing period duration and rest. What are your thoughts on that?

>> Yeah, I think you've captured two philosophies, both in academia and in management, but I would say that where we're going wrong is trying to focus on the prescription or the system. You know, early in my teaching I talked about grazing systems and I really talk more about grazing methods now because it's not about get this number of days on this and draw it out. We live in a dynamic world. Rangelands are highly dynamic. We've already talked about that. So we have to have approaches or methods that are highly dynamic. And so I think the people that are succeeding are those that know what to look for and under what conditions. So in my career, I've seen every system succeed and every system fail and I think it's because the managers that are applying those are looking for what's happening on the ground. So they're controlling severity whether it be higher or low. Man, I've heard people speak really passionately about the having really high severity and grazing really, you know, take as much as they can often and allowing that rest an I've heard people talk about saving plenty and taking very little off. And I've seen both those systems work. And I think it's because people are in different places. Their lands are different. Every different piece of ground depends on what system is going to work or what method is going to work. So I feel like both researchers and managers are starting to come together and trying to pay attention to those outcomes that they want on the ground, what the aspects of the plant and what the plant's doing. And one my favorite kind of new approaches is Sherm Swanson of Nevada who talks about the mix it up approach and it's just like don't do the same thing at the same place every year at the same time. And I think the skill of mixing it up is just making sure that you are kind of hedging your bets. You're not always going to graze hard and heavy at a bad time but also having some intensity at sometimes and less at others. So that's not a very good answer in terms of mix it up is not something that people would like to try to define but I really think it's about paying attention to the system we work in. So hopefully that makes sense. Almost everyone that's successful out there I think is paying attention to the right elements on the ground.

>> How has scientific understanding of plant community dynamics and ecosystem functions affected grazing management both in philosophy and practice do you think?

>> You know, again, we're a young science. Range science is young and we are only starting to really I think understand some of the plant responses to disturbance. And what I think the biggest change, at least in philosophy and when we bring science and management together, it's just understanding that you know, the plants that we manage on rangelands were designed to be grazed. I mean, grazing is a process in all ecosystems, as his fire. We've changed the way that grazing and fire are occurring in ecosystems. But plants have systems and have [inaudible] physical systems and abilities to recover from grazing. So one of the things that I see that's different about the dynamics is that we're starting to just understand that plants can come back if we let them, we provide the right amount of rest and the right amount of grazing or whatever conditions the plant needs at the right time. So yeah, we used to think that systems could when you remove grazing they were going to go back to what they were before, that it was really linear. And we understand that that's not the case at all anymore, that grazing is just one of the many processes plants are dealing with. And they have processes to recover, not always back the same place that they started. So this multi, you know, systems that are dynamic and they have multi --

>> Stable states?

>> Stable states, that's the word I'm looking for, not just one stable state is clemency and ecology would've told us that once we have a disturbance, the community can end up in many places, and may return to where it was or we think it should be.

>> We will come back to that later. But yeah, there could be multiple stable states that are desirable, not just stable but good or bad.

>> Right. And management philosophy has to embrace that, that it's going to be different on every piece of ground but we can't always just remove the cows and everything goes was back to where it was. We know that's not true.

>> And back to your previous comment about more of a dynamic grazing system responding to what you see on the ground, having some understanding of what kinds of ecosystem processes are driving a shift from one stable state to a different one, whether a good one or a bad one, gives us ability to manipulate those and attempt to steer them in a way that matches the goals of a ranch or a particular landscape.

>> Yeah. And just be realistic about where you're at now, you know. Whether you like it or not, you better be realistic about what system you're in right now.

>> Right. One of the common interpersonal conflicts that I've seen in working for Extension for 15 years is where a rancher has taken over a lease of say a large public lands lease and has been managing differently than the previous operator had and, you know, he'll say, you should've seen what this looked like ten years ago and they almost always mean that it looked worse ten years ago. But of course, there's often no photographic evidence or some kind of on the ground monitoring to back that up. But the conflict is that, you know, somebody else, say an external audience or a fisheries biologist or wildlife biologist, you know, they have in their head their own scale of what they think the landscape should be in terms of quality. And if they think that it's currently at a five and they want it to be a ten and the rancher is saying yeah, but it was the one 10 years ago and today it's at a five, you know, in the rancher's mind, that means we should continue doing whatever we're doing that has caused it to improve to this current condition, whereas somebody else is saying yeah, but it's not good enough. And the assumption is usually that then if you remove grazing, it's going to snap back to some ecologic nirvana, you know, or the historic conception of climax if we just remove animals.

>> Right and so let's be realistic about where you're at right now. You may never get there again. I'm sorry, I'm never going to be able to run a four-minute mile, just never going to happen. And so you got to be realistic about what you can do but also what's the potential, what could it become. And you're right, people driving by on the road, they have an idea of what beautiful land would be and what the condition should look like and the answer is not always just -- In fact, it's seldom just removing grazing.

>> Many of the larger ranchers in the West have access to native shrub steppe, dry forest, maybe even higher elevation mesic mixed-conifer forests that often have very different plant communities. How do you think most ranchers approach the need to graze differently in those different settings?

>> Yeah or do they? The good ranchers understand that. They understand that they have these different opportunities at different places on the landscape and they put those together in a puzzle that really works, that really accentuates the abilities of each of those ecosystems. So I think it's like a board game. The good ranchers understand when to put what where. And again going back to the dynamic piece. So now we're talking about not just dynamic within a year, but within a place, so changing elevation and changing the kinds of lands that you have. And yeah, there's no playbook on this one. There's no go here and then go there. There's some general rules and some ideas, but this is where the art of range management comes in, I think. You know, when I was in school I was taught that range management was a science and an art. And I thought, ah, that is just bullpucky because if we knew enough, we could do the science and we would understand the scientific basis for all of this. And I've come completely full circle on that. I think we'll never know enough because it's this interaction between ecosystems that we can never know. And so that where good managers, good land managers, good ranchers, they have this certain inherent idea of what's going to happen if I move from this meadow here to that sage steppe. And yeah, we have some general patterns over years that seem to work. But again, it's an opportunity to change what's on the ground because of where things are on the ground.

>> The manager needs to be in tune, so to speak, in an intuitive sort of way with what's happening with the landscape where there's ecosystem interactions that are more complex than what we can tease out or if we did tease them out here, it'd be different over there. But it be different at different scale.

>> Yeah, absolutely. But I think we when to do some due diligence in helping people look at the right stuff. Find out what are, how do you get in tune, what is it that you're looking at and things like the Grazing Response Index, which I know you've worked with a bit, but what that does is just help you look at the right stuff, look at something and try to see what's happening.

>> To ask the right questions.

>> Yeah. And although I would say many good managers are looking at the right stuff, they have no idea what it is they're actually seeing, what they're actually looking at. And so I think that's something that you in your extension role and me as a scientist and managers with us can help us say, you know, this is something you got to pay attention to. And oddly enough, after nearly several decades of trying to study this stuff, we're just starting to say this is what you should be looking at.

>> And here's what's actually happening and the things that you're going right. here's some of the scientific underpinnings for what's actually happening in the real world.

>> Yeah, right. Yeah, exactly.

>> Some people would say that the kind of short duration high-density grazing advocated since the '70s and '80s by Allan Savory is even more important on the drier sparser plant communities like we find in desert rangelands because it allows for much longer regrowth and recovery periods from that grazing event. And of course, one of the difficulties in any natural resource research is that it's extremely difficult to hold everything constant except for the one variable you're trying to test. And so this is nowhere more prominent than in the world of grazing research on a wide range of plant committees. And, you know, in contrast to that, logistically and economically, there's often not enough value in those sparse desert landscapes to support the cost of the infrastructure and manpower that it may take to apply that kind of grazing management. I really like Nathan Sayre's definition of rangelands, that there are landscapes where no more lucrative economic activity has yet taken root. You know, this is kind of a sarcastic response to the historical definition of rangelands that was in rangelands textbooks that it was all the land that was left over once you got rid of forests and cropland in cities and open water. So the economic marginality of these rangelands-based enterprises like ranches can maybe promote exploitation. We certainly saw that in the cattle boom of the late 19th century, which continued into the 20th in places where there is little more grasp. So is that intense management necessary? Is it ecologically better?

>> Wow, good question. As you know, that's a pretty raging debate. It's been there since the '80s. When I was in school, you know, some people trying to prove that these intense methods were working or were not working. And as you mentioned, it's just something science can't be the referee for. It's just too difficult to study and say, this method does work or this doesn't. And so that's left us in a situation now where we've seen these intensive systems work in places and fail in places. You pointed out some, you know, food for thought, some things we really got to remember when we're doing this. One is the how much input you're going to put in that because making a living on rangelands is tough. It's marginal at best and it is kind of hard to think of ourselves is whatever was left over that you graze because you can't do anything else with it but at least you can use grazing on rangelands, but it's pretty marginal. So don't be putting in a lot of fenced feeding cattle in the winter, those kinds of things. We've known for years that that's kind of a recipe for an economic disaster on many rangelands. So that, you got to pay attention to that, whether that's going to be worth the benefit of being able to control when plants, when and how much an individual plant is grazed. So again, eye on the ball, when and how much is an individual plant graced and then how long does have to rest. Each person is going to have to make a decision on whether that fits their situation. So, kind of my answer to this is it ecologically best. We can't actually know. We can't study it and do an experiment on it. But we can know by looking at the response to the land. So again, paying attention to is the land getting closer to what we want it to look for to its potential, are you increasing diversity, are you increasing amount. One thing I would say that really have never shown that heavy grazing really can double biomass. Biomass is given to us out in the West by the amount of precipitation we get. And we can change the quality of the biomass. We can change how valuable it is to livestock when it's used. Sometimes we can increase biomass a little bit with grazing or increase a little bit without grazing. So I think mother nature and rain tells us how much we have. What we can change with intensive management is the quality of that forage. So again, it goes back to the skill of the manager. And yes, in answer to your question, you do need to be intensively managed. Now when I say intensively, I don't necessarily mean using the plants really hard. I mean being intense. I mean looking at the ground, making sure of what you're seeing. So I don't think there's much support for just throw the cows out there and pick him up in the fall. I think we all need to be intense managers.

>> So you think the future of range grazing is in more nomadic herding less fences?

>> I am a pretty big fan of thinking about going sort of backward to where we really intensively manage with herds. This new concept of in herding, I don't know if you've heard that term yet about where there's a person that is managing the livestock, but also really paying attention to the ground and they're trying to go back to an era of kind of sheep herding level, very close herds, not with cattle and other animals. And so, yeah, there's a lot of future in this old, old technology of really paying attention to where animals are on the ground.

>> I've purchased Fred Provenza's new book on "The Art of Shepherding" but have not gotten very far into it yet but that's a fascinating topic.

>> Yeah. And I think again that's an old technology. He in that book is talking with some other herders that have just tried to figure out why did that work, why did that old technology work. And what Fred is doing and his co-authors is again helping you pay attention to what's important, what are you looking at, what's really happening to the animal.

>> There's one rabbit trail about terminology that might be useful to kind of talk through now, both for the benefit of the rest of this episode and also further for the podcast. I think there's some confusion about what we mean by stocking rate, stock density, intensive management versus severity. In my mind, stocking rate is not the same thing as real-time instantaneous stock density. And I think that's one of the main points where the Allan Savory's proponents and some of the [inaudible] miss each other.

>> Right. Right.

>> You can apply a light stocking rate, in other words, you know, the amount of animals that we have on a very large landscape, but still apply very high stock density inside of that landscape.

>> That's right. So stocking rate is just how my animals you had out there for a specific time. So you can have some number of animals out there for the whole year or a larger number of animals out there for just a few days and also have very different effects on the land. And yeah, I think those are again, those are two tools. Stock density can be used really effectively to do things like reduce selection of animals or plants that the animal chooses that they are less selective when they're in really dense groups. And so if you're doing targeted grazing or something like that, maybe that's the effect that you want. On the other hand, if you really want animals to have maximum choice all year round, then a lower density. Now in both those cases, you could have the same stocking rate. So yes, I think people are talking across each other. High stocking rate just is the number of animals you had out there in a year, not at any one time during that year. They're both tools, different tools.

>> And the term "grazing intensity" is often used to refer to what I would call grazing severity. And I think this is also one of the places where people miss each other. Intensive management usually means that you're applying a higher stock density and moving animals frequently. But inside of a high stock density, you can graze very lightly or very severely, just depending on how long the animals are in a given landscape. You could have 100,000 pounds breaker and just top the plants and move on. Or you could graze it all the way into the ground, depending on how long animals stay.

>> That's right. Severity is, you'll almost have to correct me. It's a term that it definitely is different than intensity. Severity is how much of the plant was removed, just much like fire severity, you know, kind of how much of the area was burned. And so that's an important characteristic like percent utilization would be a term we use to use or still used for that. And again, that's a tool. Sometimes you want to graze severely. You want plants to, you want to remove a lot of the biomass, other times less. But in both those situations, you could be intensively managing. You'd be paying intense attention to the situation.

>> Right. And in a rangeland setting, one of the reasons for promoting shorter duration higher density grazing is because once you approach higher animal densities, you tend to get a little bit more trampling and less consumption and doing that in the dormant season has the potential at least to lay down plant material on the ground to cover bare ground, which you may not get with a lighter density.

>> Yeah. And also if you're having a high stock density, then you're also, animals are more evenly distributed. So not only are you, you know, having an effect of the animals on the ground to get that biomass to the ground service, but you're doing it more evenly across your pasture. Both of those are important.

>> Related to confusing terminology, there have been a number of efforts to try to capture grazing use numerically in a way that would potentially be more useful than the historical conception of the animal unit month. And most people in the range profession know that the animal unit month is simply a quantity of forage. It's not necessarily an animal factor, just the amount of forage that 1000 pounds of [inaudible] would consume over a month. But because of the confusion over how AUMs are applied, they have been widely discredited as a nearly useless way of expressing grazing use. So the AUM communicates how many pounds of forage either are available or have been removed in the grazing season, that could be good or bad. Do you think there's other better ways of expressing grazing use or does the AUM still have value?

>> Yeah. It's interesting that there would be such a debate over this term, "the animal unit month, the AUM, but what's changed is when people think of it as an animal, they think of this term that was created sometime in the '30s and '40s era when the Taylor Grazing Act was enacted and we started counting up forage on forest service allotments and then later BLM allotments. We came up with this term. It made a lot of sense that that's the amount of forage that a 1000-pound cow and her calf at that time would eat. Okay, what's the problem? Back in the '30s and '40s, maybe a 1000-pound cow was pretty normal. Now a cow on rangelands probably closer to 1300 to 1400, even. That number changes over time. It certainly crept up since about the '90s. Now animals are very big and now the trend is that maybe we're going to get smaller animals out on range. So that's going to change. The right weight of an animal on range will change. So my philosophy or my thought is that we got to keep something the same. So let's keep our eye on the ball which being, as you mentioned, an AUM is an amount of forage. So what we should probably do if we did anything is kind of change the animal. Get the animal out of that term because we do need a constant amount of forage that we're trying to have on a land. So when I lease land, I'm going to be leasing an amount of forage. If I'm trying to improve land, I might want to improve the amount of forage, might want to improve those AUMs. If I'm going to use animals on that ground, I'm going to use that amount of forage, that AUM. But the fact that the kind of critter that I use to harvest that AUM, that can change. So let's let that be that variable. It could be big cow. It could be ten goats, whatever. Let that change but let's always keep our eye on the ball, which we're trying to focus on how much forage is available to use because that's what we can affect with management. We can change the quality of that forage, that AUM or we can change the amount per acre a little bit, not much, but we can we can surely make sure that the forage that's available for animals, we have some control over that. So I --

>> So the confusion or the misuse has to do with the way we communicate animal demand. The AUM is a good way to communicate forage supply.

>> That's right.

>> But we have to understand that if you have 1800 pounds of animal in a pair, we have to be careful to express accurately how much those are going to consume out of our allotted AUMs.

>> Exactly right. And again, always making sure that you're watching what's going on, on the ground no matter what stocking rate, how many animals you have out there, no matter how many AUMs or forage you're trying to use, always paying attention to what's that's doing on the ground.

>> I really like Charlie Orchard's modified version of the Grazing Response Index which was developed by Dr. Roy Roth [assumed spelling]. This still doesn't communicate anything like a stocking rate but maybe in our dynamic management of rangelands, the stocking rate isn't quite as critical and we're trying to plan grazing to achieve some desired outcome in the landscape. What do you think about ditching stocking rates and using outcomes like a GRI score as a goal for management?

>> I'm certainly willing to think of that because I really want us to start thinking about paying attention to what matters on the ground, the outcomes, and that's where I think the GRI, the Grazing Response Index, has done, it's really headed us in that direction, has said pay less attention to sort of how many animals you've got there, but pay attention to when they're there, how well they're distributed, what they're doing the ground, what time of year, if there's moisture available. Those sorts of ideas that set the context for grazing, we're paying attention to that. And so I actually like the idea of moving towards outcomes and less from prescriptions and stocking rates and grazing systems are prescriptions. And so moving towards outcomes, I think I'm hearing it more and more about outcome-based management and paying attention to outcomes and certainly the Grazing Response Index has gotten us with the tool in that direction.

>> It seems that we can't totally ditch stocking rates. I've said for years that 10,000 acres will likely support more than one cattle no matter where those 10,000 acres are. And one acre won't support 1000 cattle, I don't care how intense your management is. It's somewhere in between, there's some range of values that represents a sustainable amount of animals that a landscape can sustain. You know, in the wildlife world, they might call it carrying capacity instead of stocking rate. How much do you think those edges of those thresholds move? In other words, how wide is the range of stocking rates that a given piece of land might hold? And we stock -- Do we stock for the lower end of that? Do we stock for the middle where there's really no question whether it's a good a bad year, it would be sustainable?

>> Well, you're right to bring up sort of the connection between stocking rate and carrying capacity because and in my mind we're trying to set stocking rates somewhere that are related to carrying capacity of the land. So let's start with that as an assumption and then your other point and things that we've talked about before is, wow, it is so dynamic that setting some static level which has been the goal of range management for a long time to have some static level that we know exactly how many critters or how many AUMs we're going to have on the ground year after year after year. That's an illusion. I think we have to get far away from that because our systems are so dynamic that you can easily have twice the amount of forage produced in one year compared to the last or compared to the next. So let's quit managing for the idea of having a constant stocking rate or a constant carrying capacity and let's just realize that we live in a world that can change from year to year and let's think about how to make that change. Again, you've mentioned Nathan Sayre's book a couple of times, "The politics of Scale" and one of the really important points in the book is that one of the things that really drove all of range management policy and science was this idea that we could set a stocking rate and we could manage that stocking rate year in, year out. And it's pretty clear we can't do that. We really need to rethink and reestablish ways to work within a dynamic system. Now, do I know exactly how to do that? No. Historically, we thought about trying to be one way to do it would be to be very conservative with your stocking rates so that in bad years you still would have enough and in good years you'd leave a lot left over kind of for the future. That's certainly one approach. There's some real downsides to that, depending on what your operation is, whether consistency from year to year is more important than using forage when it's available or getting off of the range when there just isn't enough of forage. So I challenge people to sit and think about what is a new way of thinking about grazing based on outcomes in a dynamic system. I think we're going to get closer to mirroring what's out there on the ground to use by animals.

>> There's a group of us at WSU that are working on some publications on rangeland resiliency using a series of case studies to illustrate the various ways that different ranchers manage for greater resiliency. And one of the findings is that some ranchers manage for really high operational resiliency. So, you know, if we say that rangelands are characterized as much by variability as by aridity, one of the ways that we can accommodate that is to be able to, you know, destock or stock up in response to, you know, within your lower forage production or higher forage production. The other option to manage for resiliency is to manage for really high ecological resiliency and shoot for a really conservative stocking rate every single year so that you always have, you know, a lot of money in the bank and you're never really getting yourself vulnerable in terms of consuming too much.

>> Yeah. You're absolutely right. Those would be kind of the two extremes of philosophies there and there's everything in between. Much the same way when you look at your portfolio of investments, some people are more conservative than others. So they really want to just have a very constant output of resources. Others really want to catch the market when it's good and get it when it's low. And so it's the same idea on rangelands. But again, the resiliency concept is important because those are two very different philosophies, but both of them provide resiliency in an operation.

>> Going back a little bit to an earlier discussion about classical ideas of succession towards a climax state, how would you describe what has been a pretty significant shift over the last 30 years from the successional model advanced by Frederick Clements to more of a non-equilibrium model. We mentioned that just briefly in talking about multiple stable states. But how would you describe the basic tenets of Frederick Clements' theory and why did that not hold up in semiarid ecosystems? And then we'll talk just a bit about the non-equilibrium model and how those principles are institutionalized in things like the state and transition models.

>> Yes. So let's start out with just a little bit history. So Frederick Clements and his colleagues were in the tallgrass prairie, Nebraska and Kansas. Most of that work was really proposed in that ecosystem, which has growing season precipitation and also has cool and warm season grasses. So it really is a system that has a lot of biomass during the growing and the grazing season. And what Clements and his colleagues found was that if you removed grazing or removed disturbance and grazing was the big one they were working with, that then the system would go back to this single high ecological climax system, you know the ultimate of what that land could produce in absence of disturbance. So that then was picked up pretty quickly by the grazing people who were trying to develop grazing science. At the time, E.J. Dyksterhuis was a very big proponent of thinking of that removing animals and you're going to go back to a higher level condition. Remember, he was the one that proposed the good or the fair, poor, fair, good, and excellent system, that if your land was in excellent, that meant it was very close to that climax, that single ecosystem climax. And if it was poor, all you had to do was remove cows and it was going to move back up that successional stage. So a simple easy one things moving up and down and you're moving cattle to do that. And of course, there was in all of that the idea that it was easier to accomplish in good years and that you would usually be set back in dry years.

>> That you could measure range condition by departure or degree of similarity to a single plant community that represents the pinnacle of plant progress.

>> That's right. And furthermore, if you want to get there, all you got to do is remove grazing. So it was a pretty simple model. We didn't have any of the models at the time and it did work fairly well in the prairie, in the tallgrass and the mixed prairie. It still works pretty well. But the missing piece was that those scientists proposed it as if it was going to be all across the globe, that it was always going to work that way. And the early scientists, especially in the desert Southwest, in Arizona and New Mexico, they were trying to make it work, but it just wasn't what they were seeing, that the land was changing with or without grazing and that if it was degraded and they removed grazing, that did not mean that it was going to go back to some system. For example, at the Jornada in Las Cruces, they were studying black grama , which is sensitive to grazing, and if they removed grazing, that didn't do anything. In fact, it was the increase in mesquite that changed the dynamics for black grama. And it really wasn't related to things that we could do on the ground with management. Also in Australia, they were struggling with this. It just wasn't fitting what they were seeing. They weren't seeing that they could remove a disturbance and the land was going to go back to this predetermined high condition, what it was given the climate and the soils that they had. So it was actually the Australians and folks in Israel and other scientists throughout the globe that really pushed the bar and said, this isn't working. We got to come up with an alternative. And so Walker, Noy-Meir and Westoby all kind of got together and put something on paper, a really very influential paper and said, there's not one stable state. There's not one ultimate pinnacle community. There are many. That once a disturbance happens, it can change the system and head in a completely new trajectory for which you may never be able to return to what the system was when you started. So again, this whole discussion that we've been having, it talks a lot about dynamics. We just keep coming back to that, the multi-stable state. There's not one stable state. There's multiple types of stressors and they're going to have different outcomes depending on whether they're combined or individual, and what conditions that they occur. So now, you mentioned a little bit by state and transition models, at least we're trying to institutionalize that in the US now in saying, well, there's a reality that once you get to this state, you may or may never be able to come back. And although our state and transition models are fairly simple, at least we're trying to get at this idea that there's multiple states that any ecosystem could occur in. And so it's taken us 50 years to kind of get our hands around this. The paper by Walker and Noy-Meir and others was published in the mid-80s. And here we are several decades later and we're finally starting to embrace it.

>> We talked about grazing for outcomes rather than rigidly following a prescription for a certain style of grazing management. How would you identify some of those possible outcomes and/or measure them so that we can track progress toward that goal?

>> You and many people are asking that question these days, Tip. I really love the idea of managing for outcomes. Putting the meat on those bones is more difficult. We also mentioned the Grazing Response Index is maybe one way to do that. To be honest with you, I have not used it a lot. You've used it. So what are some of the details for which you might use the GRI to get to outcomes?

>> Yeah, the Grazing Response Index was designed to indicate different grazing variables that would lead toward or away from a rangeland health. The original Grazing Response Index identified three factors that the rancher could manipulate to two different outcomes. One of those is the degree of utilization. And so whether you have light or moderate or heavy utilization would give you a different score that would be added to other variables or factors to come up with a final score. One of the other factors is the amount of time that a plant has to regrow from a given grazing event and that if a plant has, if a landscape is grazed almost the entire growing season, then it would receive a low score, a negative score. And if a landscape has a significant part of the active growing season in order to recover or prepare for a grazing event, it would receive a high value. I really like the modified version of the Grazing Response Index developed by Charlie Orchard. Charlie Orchard was a grazing consultant who's mostly worked in the West and mostly in semiarid or arid ecosystems that are dominated by bunch grasses. And in the bunch grasses, the timing of grazing or the stage of plant growth when grazing occurs has as much to do with whether or not that plant remains healthy or persists over time as how frequently it has been grazed. And so he gave a series of scores based on different stages of growth. In other words, if a plant got grazed during the period of time when it's trying to produce a seedhead or say in the boot stage, it would receive a negative score because it's been fairly well documented that bunch grasses don't tolerate well grazing at that stage of growth. If their growing points are removed during the period of time when they're elevating all those growing points, they tend to not recover in that going season and are [inaudible] for the next. But he also identified a factor that managers cannot control necessarily, but have to manage around, which is the variation in growing season precipitation within a year. So if we receive dramatically below average precipitation in a growing season or a grazing season, that absolutely affects the world of the ranch manager even though it's not something that he can manipulate but he has to work around it. We've applied the Grazing Response Index in a coordinated resource management group that is managing a multiple ownership landscape under a single grazing plan in Central Washington on, you know, classic shrubs steppe plant communities. It was a landscape that had been grazed pretty heavily for quite a long time. And so one of our objectives was to apply grazing in a way that would allow the landscape, not necessarily to recover, but to be healthy. And we've used the GRI scores as one of the ways to guide that management. Partly because of logistics and some limitations on various pieces of agency ground, we have often ended up grazing some of the private ownership in dormancy and grazing in dormancy means that the animals are allowing nearly all of the grazing, all of the growing season for plant growth and that also means that they're not grazing plants during this period of, this critical period of internode elongation or bolting. So we've ended up quite high GRI scores and we see the results of that on the ground in terms of increased biomass production, decreasing bare ground, higher litter cover, significantly higher species diversity. It's not uncommon for say a species richness plot of 10 by 50 meters to have 60 plant species in it. The kind of scores that we have ended up with applying that style grazing management have been around three. And the way the GRI works, any score that's higher than zero is expected to have positive long-term effect on the plant community, whatever that might mean. It may not mean toward a single expected plant community but promotes ecosystem processes like water conservation, species diversity, plant production, plant reproduction.

>> Right. So the GRI is not really the goal, like the actual index is not the goal. It's not the outcome. But it's a way of measuring what the effect of your treatments, your context, the grazing context might have on the ground. You're still going to need to look at whether it's working or not and it sounds like you're doing that. So, what I like about the indexes is it's really helping you see what to look at and what about your management you should pay attention to.

>> Yes, I found that it has been a good tool and in this landscape and in others, we would recommend measuring some specific attributes of plant communities to identify the specific things are changing in response to the grazing management that is guided by the GRI.

>> Always good advice.

>> This is probably a good place to recap some of the take-home messages from this podcast episode. This has been a pretty wide ranging discussion. So it may be useful to find some take-home points. What would be a couple from your perspective?

>> One is that it's come up time and time again is that we live in dynamic ecosystems. So everything changes from year to year and from place to place. So one of the take-home messages is that there's not one answer, that every person will have, every manager will have a different way to approach that but all of those need to be based on some ability to deal with and survive dynamic ecosystems. It seems to be a common theme in what we've talked about.

>> I think a second would be that there are multiple approaches to grazing that can be effective. The critical thing is to have a manager who's paying attention to the results on the ground, understanding that every ecosystem will be different, and the same practices may achieve different results in different settings.

>> And following up on that, another important point that we talked about that different places and different settings is that much of range management, what we learned early on in the profession was conducted in the plains where the ecosystems are quite different in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota than they are on our side of the Rockies. So I question some of the value of some of that really old literature. We've learned a lot since then. So people should really pay attention to the new ideas and new approaches that are coming out from Extension and others.

>> So maybe we can conclude that the range profession is learning an awful lot about the science of range management but there still remains quite a bit of art that is necessary to get successful results on the ground. We've mentioned quite a few different authors and publications in this episode. We will make available that list, as well as PDFs of the documents where that's a possibility in the show notes on The Art of Range website. Karen and I would like to thank you for joining us on this inaugural podcast episode. For those who are interested in some more detailed information about outcomes-based grazing, you can check out one of her websites [Background Music] and work that has been done and promoted through the Society of Range Management at Karen, thanks for joining me today.

>> Thank you, Tip.

>> Thank you for listening to The Art of Range podcast. You can subscribe to and review the show through iTunes for your favorite podcasting app so you never miss an episode. Just search for "art of range." If you have questions or comments for us to address in a future episode, send an email to For articles and links to resources mentioned in the podcast, please see the show notes at Listener feedback is important to the success of our mission empowering rangeland managers. Please take a moment to fill out a brief survey at This podcast is produced by CAHNRS Communications in the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. The project is supported by the University of Arizona and funded by the Western Center for Risk Management Education through the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

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