AoR 32: David Bohnert on Range Cattle Nutrition, Body Condition Score, & Calf Performance

What's good for cattle nutrition is sometimes different than what's good for plants. Dr. Bohnert talks about the timing of nutrient supply on rangelands and the nutrient demand of late winter- or spring-calving beef cattle and how to manage body condition to optimize calf performance. 


[ Music ]

>> [Background Music] 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

[ Music ]

My guest today on the Art of Range is David Bohnert. He is with Oregon State University as an animal science professor. He's also the Director of the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center. And he's been doing ruminant nutrition for a quite some time. David and I ran into each other at the Pacific Northwest Animal Nutrition Conference in Boise a couple weeks ago. And it occurred to me that we haven't done much discussion on the podcast about basic range cow nutrition. I'm prone as somebody who's a range nerd to think about grazing management decisions from the perspective of the plant community. But if you're going to make a living raising livestock on rangeland plant communities, you have to make it work for the cow. And so I'm occasionally reminded by my rancher friend Ryan Stingley. So we're going to talk about that today. David, welcome to the show.

>> Well, thank you, Tip. I appreciate the invitation. And hopefully I can provide some information that'll be interesting and useful.

>> I'm certain of it. What was your pathway to becoming a ruminant nutritionist with OSU?

>> Well, I was-- started, I guess, right at the beginning. I grew up on a small ranch and dairy farm in South Central Texas where we had like obviously dairy cattle, the beef cattle, and sheep and goats. And agriculture has always been important to me. And when I went through high school, I was very active in FFA, had some pretty good success there. And in Texas, it's really nice that they had some scholarship opportunities. And in all honesty, agriculture, beef cattle, dairy, sheep and goat production allowed me to go to college through the receipt of one of those scholarships through the FFA. And when that happened, I went to undergrad at a little school in West Texas called Angelo State University, where I also got my masters. I just really liked agriculture, wanted to further my career. I liked academia when I went through my masters and ended up going to University of Kentucky for my PhD. While I was there, I got a really good background in ruminant nutrition, specifically beef cattle production and ruminant nutrition, like I said. And I always wanted to get back into extension outreach and wanted to kind of get it at a ranch station in all honesty. I was really familiar with the A&M system. I worked with Ed Huston [assumed spelling] who used to be at the AgriLife Texas A&M Center in San Angelo. And that's the way it worked out. I had to-- This job came open, I received it, and I've been lucky enough to be here for little over 21 years.

>> You've been there in Burn for 21 years?

>> Yes, sir.

>> Yeah. That's new location. Oregon has some similarities to Washington. You say on the website that Oregon has about 550,000 beef cows. I'm not sure what date that statistic comes from. But I think Washington State is somewhere around 250,000 beef cows, probably more dairy cows in Washington State than there are in Oregon State. But you mentioned too in your talk in Boise that the majority of cattle anyway in Oregon or at least for part of their life dependent on sagebrush-bunchgrass plant communities. And that because we have a fairly narrow window of active growth on those who were trying to sync that up with the nutritional needs of the cow over time, and that can be a significant challenge. Maybe, since this is something we really haven't talked up-- talked about before, can you describe kind of the forage quality curve on sagebrush-bunchgrass plant communities? And then I guess we'll move to talking about nutrient demand.

>> Sure. Sure. And I'm assuming Washington is going to be very similar to Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, when we look at beef cows, like you say. And the reason it's really important for that sagebrush-bunchgrass range. Oregon, you know, depending on the census and however it was determined, like you say 550,000 beef cows, Washington might be a little bit less. But most of those are actually east of the Cascades at least in Oregon. Probably 75% of the beef cowherd is east of the Cascades, where they're going to be using sagebrush-bunchgrass range. And what's unique about the Pacific Northwest or the Great Basin, for that matter, we're usually high elevation. And by high elevation that's going to be cool nights, it's going to be short growing seasons. And then you tie that in with the limited preset that we get. A lot of the area can range anywhere from a little less than 10 inches to maybe as high as getting close to 20 depending on where you're at and what elevation. But then you also look at the frost-free periods. There's a lot of this area or this region, I should say, that may have 90 days or less of frost-free. And those won't be consecutive days a lot of times as we all know. And so consequently, over the millennia, we've-- the type of forage that we have are cool season forages. That's contrary to what you may see in a lot of the Midwest or southern plains in that country where you have not only the cool season but you also have warm season. And so that cool season forage curve along with that climatic and environmental constraints that I just mentioned, will cause a very narrow what I call window of forage availability. We might have 45, depending on the year, 45 to 60 days of what I will call adequate forage quality, where we're going to be at or above nutrient requirements for a lactating cow. And most of us in the Pacific Northwest are spring calving on rangeland for a variety of reasons. So consequently, we're really looking at a fairly narrow window of adequate forage quality that we're going to have to be careful, you know, leading into. It's actually the breeding season as well as then once we wean or actually get about mid-summer sometime around that, July or August period, forage qualities really starting to crash with these cool season forages.

>> Yeah. And how does that sync up with what the cows body demands in terms of her cycle?

>> It usually syncs up fairly well with the way most people manage their herd. There are some outliers. But in general, most people are going to be calving depending on your location. Sometime in mid-February to middle of March to maybe as early as May. And what that allows is you're going to have to provide adequate nutrition for those cows in that late gestation period. So, either through-- if you're grazing, you're going to have to supplement them somehow normally, but if you're-- most of us are feeding some kind of harvested forage, hay or corn stocks or something like that, if you have access to it. And you're going to either have to have adequate nutrition in that hay or you're going to need to provide a supplement. And that's usually occurring up in to calving and maybe a little after calving. Because we really can't turn out or get on a lot of our rangelands until late April to maybe first of June or depending on your location and where you're at. So, that period of time of-- right after calving becomes really critical that you provide them a good start on nutrition or be able to maintain or have them in a decent body condition score. Because we know when that lactation really kicks in, it's going to be pulling a lot of demand. And that normally coincides with when we start getting breed up. And-- So, then that-- the cows aren't losing weight and they're getting adequate-- inadequate nutrition level heading into the breeding season so that they hopefully can rebreed and then have that calf in the following year.

>> Yeah. What are the consequences if they don't get that?

>> Well, you know, the one thing when you look at culling of what we do with cattle, in general, we're selecting on reproductive efficiency. And a lot of times we're selecting for the right animal for that environment, simply because that's if you're retaining your replacements a lot of times. Because if those cows can stay in the system with how you manage it, they're going to be maintained. If they're not receiving adequate nutrition, either by cow type or environmental constraints or whatever the nutritional challenge or environmental challenge may be, you're going to not have the adequate nutrition for that cow to start cycling in a timely fashion so that they can rebreed to have a calf and maintain that calving interval of less than a year or right out of year. So, that-- those are-- that's probably the biggest issue if you're not going to have an adequate nutrition during that time. And at least historically, what we've always looked at is that cow, that we-- we're not getting her an adequate nutrition heading into the breeding season, she's probably not going to breed back as good as we want her to. Some of the work that we've done here shown, if they're not inadequate body condition score and having a positive plane in nutrition heading into that breeding season, we're probably going to have a 15 to 20% decrease in pregnancy rate.

>> And historically, the Pacific Northwest has been fairly well insulated from the kind of spring drought effects or negative effects on forage quality that you sometimes see in the Great Plains of the south because of our wintertime precipitation pattern. Spring forage is fairly reliable, but maybe not so much in the winner. One of the things that I'm curious about is that it seems like historically there was a lot more winter grazing on rangeland, which from a range perspective, I like quite a bit. I think there's some, you know, some challenges to that in terms of water and logistics, and maybe bigger cows than we used to have. But what would you say-- Do you have any idea what the history of that is in Oregon, and whether that is a shift that has taken place? And do you see any movement back that direction?

>> Yeah. I don't know if it's a shift that's taken place, but I think there's definitely a lot of interest. And there's movement in that direction. For a lot of the things that I think you're insinuating about, you know, grazing weight season or winter grazing, has some opportunity there for a variety of things from rangeland management to decrease potentially reducing fuel loads and using it as a strategic management tool. However, nutrition can be an issue without winter grazing. So that-- those are the-- that's one of the big issues that we have to watch with winter grazing is that we're providing an adequate supplementation program, or we have some kind of, you know, if rangeland has forage kosher winterfat or something that can maintain the nutrition on that cow, winter grazing can work well. The other thing that I think depending on the preset in the way the temp is, or temperature is, because in the Pacific Northwest, that's one thing. Climate change or climate variability is something we deal with every year. There's no such thing as an average year, I don't think, or there is obviously mathematically but they don't happen very often according to that mathematical average. And so, when you're trying to manage some of that rangeland with the invasives that we have, and what I'm saying is specifically cheatgrass, medusahead could be in there but not-- usually comes on a little later along with our bunchgrasses. But because of the ability of some of those animals to respond to little bit warmer temperature preset, winter grazing sometimes depending on the forage composition that you've got on that rangeland can provide an opportunity for some of that control and also to get some adequate nutrition taken advantage of those animals.

>> Yeah. Well, how would you characterize forage quality in terms of crude protein if we went out and measured, took a forage sample, had analyzed for forage quality on bluebunch wheatgrass range on December 15th?

>> Yeah.

>> What would those-- What might those values look like?

>> Well, you know, it could be variable, but you're going to be down there in that 3 to 4% protein.

>> Three to 4%?

>> I mean, it's going to-- And that cow and in all honesty at that time, she's probably going to be in gestation, but without a calf [inaudible] her requirement, you know, with adequate intake is probably going to be somewhere in that six and a half to seven range is what she needs.

>> Right.

>> So, she's going to need-- you know, if it's 3% short and she's eaten 20 pounds or, you know, almost 30 pounds a day, you know, she's going to need half to three-quarter pound of protein provided in her [inaudible].

>> Right. And how is that most commonly provided with folks in your part of Oregon?

>> Yeah. And that's pretty-- you know, again, that-- it depends on the operation. Alfalfa is always good. That's just really, really good feed. But not all-- not everybody get out. On rangeland it's going to be really tough to do that. So, if you're feeding hay or you're in a situation where you-- on private eating ground, for instance rangeland, you can provide alfalfa if it works for you. And it can work well. We can supplement it frequently. Some of the work we did here early on, as well as some of the work by Ed Huston, who I mentioned one of my mentors early on, we can-- we know we can provide alfalfa once a week to maybe twice a week and decrease labor costs and still get the adequate protein because the nitrogen [inaudible] unique ability that ruminant to nitrogen recycle. That's one. You could feed-- hand feed and the smaller operations can do that by feeding cottonseed meal or soybean meal or distillers grains, whatever you may have available in your area. But for most of the people on the range, they're usually trying to do it either with tubs or molasses mixes or blocks as a way to get some kind of protein intake into them as well as-- you know, they're pretty good ways to manipulate distribution on the rangeland as well.

>> Yeah. In terms of the calf, you've done a fair bit of research with others on fetal programming and how the nutrition of the mother affects the performance of the calf later in life. Can you give us just the 30-second elevator speech on kind of what's going on there and then we'll talk about it in more detail?

>> Sure. Historically, when we looked at supplementing beef cows was just [inaudible] beef cows. We've really only looked at the cow per se. We wanted a healthy calf. I don't want to say we didn't worry about the calf. But we wanted to make sure the cow had good adequate nutrition to maintain a body condition score or a nutritional status that allowed her to rebreed. And if that occurred, we were normally OK with a good healthy calf, because you wanted to meet a good body condition score heading into that calving season. Well, some research over the last 15, 20 years and it actually started with the Barker hypothesis, where he looked at a lot of human nutrition that occurred during the Dutch famine during World War II where they saw the nutrition of the maternal dam or mother in that sense had a really large effect on the subsequent health and productivity or-- you know, I don't want to say performance on humans, but that's how it relates to livestock. They were seeing a lot of health issues and how well those human infants and then as they became adults, that the health issues that were there just simply due to the poor nutrition that the mother had during gestation. So, work with variety of livestock species have shown that that's probably also occurring with our beef cattle. We have sheep and goats, swine. Almost all the livestock species has been shown that it's something we probably took for granted. But we know now that maternal nutrition is affecting the subsequent performance in long-term productivity of that offspring. And that's something that really isn't incorporated much, if at all, in our nutrient requirements that we used.

>> Yeah. One of the things that you mentioned in your talk in Boise is that, you know, most ranchers have been taught and allow cal body condition to vary through the year where they kind of cycle in and out of decent body condition trying to gain body condition when the environment allows it, and also trying to make sure you've got adequate condition during critical periods, like going into the breeding season so that they'll actually cycle and breed back. Does that have-- Does that cycling have an effect, then, with this fetal programming does have an effect on calf performance? And if so, you know, do we know if there's like a critical threshold if they get below-- you know, if you get to a two or something, does that trigger a calf response where it doesn't if they only go down to a three?

>> Yeah. That's a really, really good question. And that's, in all honesty, hopefully one of the points that I made clear at that-- at the nutrition conference in Boise. Because if you look at historically in a perfect world the way we as nutritionist have always said is, yeah, if you maintain that cow with a body condition score of five to six yearlong, that's probably the best case scenario that we could do, because that animal is always in a good body condition score and everything is going to work out well. Well--

>> But that's expensive?

>> Yeah, exactly. And realistically it doesn't happen, because of that, like, especially in the Pacific Northwest that forage production curve as well as forage quality curve, that just doesn't coincide with being able to maintain cow weight so they cycle. And so we designed the study when all the cook and I and a couple of graduate students where we wanted to look at that a few years ago, where we actually held cows that were in--let's say they were in a body condition score right around a four right after breeding. And we had other cows that were in a body condition score of six or really good body condition score right after breeding. And we AI so they were all to a single sire confirmed pregnant. And then we broke it down into groups. We had-- That body condition score, we had some of that body condition score for cows we held basically the same nutrition all the way through to calving, the sixes we did the same thing. And then we structured it based on what trimester they were in. If they were in the first trimester, we increased them from four to six and then held them six through calving. Second trimester, same thing, held them through four to the beginning of the second and then went to six and held them to calving and then we did the same thing in the third. So basically, what we were doing was seeing by weight cycling is there a period that, you know, is more advantageous to let them cycle? Is it better to not let them cycle? We wanted to see that. And what was interesting in that study was that the ones we held at four and six, those calves when we wean them, you know, so 200-- roughly 200 days after calving, they had no difference in body weight of those calves that wean. However, those cow-- those calves for-- And I should say the ones that we increased in the first trimester, there was no difference either. But those that were allowed to increase in body condition score from the beginning of the second to calving as well as the beginning of the third to calving, had roughly a 15 to 20-pound increase in weaning weight simply by when that increase in nutrition are, you know, allowing the weight cycle occurred. So that suggests that, you know, at least from a weaning weight perspective when we're looking at that, that weight cycling and allowing them to come into a positive planning nutrition from let's say mid to late gestation so that they're in a good body condition score at calving seem to be one of the management scenario that works out well for us. And in all honesty, historically, that's what we've done. That's when it's cheaper for us to put weight on calves.

>> Right. Well, that's good news. A couple different philosophies that are out there regarding how to take care of cows, one is that we have cows with superior genetics to what we had a hundred years ago or at least, you know, so the story goes, and that it pays you back to take care of the cow well regardless of what those inputs might be. The other perspective-- and I don't want to name names for who might represent the other end of the spectrum and maybe it's not quite that extreme, but, you know, the other side says that you want to select-- you apply whatever stresses your environment would naturally apply to the animals. And whichever ones can make it in that environment. You keep those and get rid of the ones that don't. And don't spend a ton of money on them. And I feel like most ranchers are somewhere in the middle where, you know, you're not going to spend hundreds of dollars per cow trying to overcome all of these deficiencies with an animal that really is incredibly unsuited to her environment. Though on the flip side, you don't just-- yeah, leave cows out there winter grazing on 3% crude protein and hope for the best because that doesn't go so well. What's your perspective on where that balance might be?

>> Yeah, that's a very good point. And I think I know who you're talking about because I think there's a mutual colleague or friend of ours, just north of here. And that's it. That's a really good point. And that's where I was bringing up earlier in our conversation today where I said that, you know, how you manage your animals is almost that's the biggest selection criteria that we have, in culling criteria because how we manage our animals and how we want to do it. Those that can get pregnant in that scenario, we keep. Those that don't, go away. And-- So, it is something that we have to weigh and how much money, what's that return on investment, because with-- if you've got a little bit of a short pencil, you can calculate what a 5 or 10% reduction in pregnancy rate is going to cost you. The other thing is, is that if you're retaining ownership on your females, if you're, you know, you're raising your own replacements, that's not a cheap option either. And a lot of times when people with heifer calves, we usually baby them for a little bit, and she's got her first calf on the ground, she'll usually rebreed pretty easy because she's in good shape. But then when she's had a whole year with that calf at her side, she's got another one growing in her belly, she calves again, she's still rolling a little bit. And that third, you know, when we're trying to get her pregnant for that third time, that's when we really lose those animals that we put a lot of money in. Now, you can look at whatever perspective like you just said. And I think a lot of people are somewhere in the middle as you mentioned. But if you're selecting animals that can survive in your management scenario, that's great. But trying to get that heifer or the second calf heifer, however you want to-- whatever you want to call them, cow that's had two calves, to try to make it with the old mature cows that have been on the range for longer, you know, that's not really fair either in my perspective.

>> Right.

>> And so, it gets down to, you know, how you manage them, how you run them. Maybe you can have a little bit better pasture that those younger or thinner cows can go on. And it's why every ranch is different and-- in every locations there. And we just try to manage it appropriately because-- you know, I mean, the cowherd is-- that's the factory for most of us. And whatever we can do to make that animal fit our production environment. Mine may be different than yours, may be different than Joe's, may be different than our other neighbor down the road. But as long as we're fairly consistent on how we manage our animals, then we get into that selection and then it gets back into some of the fetal programming like we may be talking about of how we select animals and when we select animals to maybe keep that-- that's the challenge we've got as researchers I think moving forward is how do we provide that information to our stakeholders or our producers so that they can make the best decision for the future of their operation.

>> Yeah. I would add to that that many of the large scale economic analysis of ranch profitability over the last 20 years that I've been paying attention have pretty consistently indicated that the rancher who is a lower cost producer is the one that consistently makes money. But of course, if you push that to the extreme, then you're either not keeping cows alive or they're not breeding back and that not having animals-- having a high percentage of open cows every year is a profit-killer from the start. So you got to kind of get that dialed in.

>> Yes, absolutely. And, you know, a lot of it gets down to, as well, is what kind of animal are you selecting? You know, I think a lot of the West is Angus is pretty black and, you know, the maintenance works on those two. But if you're running on some of those low input operations and you're raising replacements, for instance, it's going to be really tough for some of those continental breeds for instance to make it versus some of the more European or maternal breeds. And it gets back to your objective too. I mean, on-- and your resource base of what you have. If you got the groceries to handle maybe a larger cow or maybe a different breed cow, they-- those animals potentially have the genetics to take advantage of the forage, whereas they may not in a resource-limited situation. And then that's really going to make it hard on ranches sometimes if they've got or purchasing replacements for instance and they get the ones that weren't raised in that kind of an environment or they were developed in an environment that was not as resource limiting. Those animals will fall out fairly quickly.

>> Right. You mentioned in your talk that the NRC, the National Research Council requirements have recently been revised. Are there any significant changes in there that'll be worth talking about?

>> Yeah, there's not a whole lot. I mean, it's shinier and new. You know, I still sometimes even go back, I shouldn't say that as a nutritionist, right? We should be going forward. But the old 1984 version of NRC was on the crude protein system and TDN and any A&M [inaudible] energy for maintenance and energy for gain. And it did a pretty good job predicting performance. And then in 1996 and then the update that occurred in 2000, the past version came out and went to metabolizable protein system. And in metabolizable protein system, we're looking at more of what's actually available to the animal rather than the gross crude protein of what they're consuming. And, you know, that was a good step forward. And even that model did a really good job of predicting performance, especially energetically. Did a decent job trying to manage ruminal fermentation and microbial protein production and so forth. It did a-- It had a little bit of a problem in our area though, because if you plug it in on the grazing side, and so the cows were going to die. You know, when we had 3 or 400 pounds or maybe 500 pounds to forage the acre because the model that was used didn't incorporate data., you know, models are only as good as the data that used to make them, right? I mean, we all know that.

>> Yeah.

>> And I don't think that that model was as well. And so there were-- there was a commitment made to try to improve that. And so in the most recent edition, the 2016 edition for animal or nutrient requirements that came out, they expanded on that. They've tried to make some fixes. One of the-- Really, one of the only changes that I'm super aware of, it is not even that big, was mineral requirements really didn't change. Cobalt was the only one went from like 0.14 million, I believe up, to 0.15, and everything else. And the unique thing and I think you remember from the talk I might have been where what you're getting to now is I showed that other than for lactation, the milk component not really worried about the fetus, the mineral requirements aren't different during gestation, lactation, or dry period for-- especially our micro minerals, you know, your copper, your zinc, those things. So, that's where when we get in the point, I was want to make in that talk or try to get out was we do not have a good feel for a lot of the nutrient requirements of beef cattle when-- especially, I don't want to say beef on general because we do for a lot of the calves that are growing in bulls and things like that, that we're aware of. But that gestated cow, we're not really aware of how the gestational nutrition is affecting the long-term production of that cow. And that hasn't been included in the nutrient requirements. And I think that's another area of research that we've got to get a handle on, the timing, the amount, how all that's going to work because that's information that our stakeholders are going to need in an ever increasingly competitive world. The ones that are able to take advantage of that I think were going to have a little bit of a leg up.

>> We have quite a few listeners of the podcast that are what I would call natural resource professionals. I think there's a decent mix of ranchers and natural resource professionals. If you were giving a summary of what say somebody who's a brand new range camps with the BLM didn't grow up around cattle needs to know about range cattle nutrition so that they can communicate well with their permittees what would be the basics that they need to understand?

>> Yeah, that's a really good question. And I know we have a few range camps where that-- those scenarios come up. And kind of on the beef cattle side get asked basically the same question you just asked me, and to do for the students or the stakeholders that we have involved in. You know, I think more-- most importantly, I think it boils down to two things, is to have an open line of communication and listen to why producers may want to get out as early as they can. I think they understand that they can all the time. But, you know, if we graze early spring every year, that's not a good thing. And I think most producers know that and realize it. But there's a reason that we need to take advantage of that green grass sometimes as well. And to be able to work that in like winter grazing, like you said, it can be economical and it can work. But we also have to worry about getting that calorie grid and why is that important. One of-- It gets down to this. And that-- One thing that I asked a lot of these kids that come out do not come from a beef background. They do not come from a ranch background. And I asked them, why do we raise cattle? And granted I'm usually near the middle to the end of the sessions when we're talking about it with these students, and they're going into, OK, targeted grazing, we're going to reduce cheatgrass. We're going to harvest forage and we're going to reduce fuel loads. We're going to do-- We're going to try to use it to manipulate the landscape in a way that is going to help either wildlife-- whatever the ranch management objective may be. And I go, yes, cattle does that. That's not why we raise cattle. Why do we raise cattle? And they're sitting there looking at me blank I'd a lot of times. And you have to make money. You know, I mean-- And so I think those new range camps that may not have any experience just to have an open enough mind and realize that with proper grazing, hopefully, with proper grazing, we and with the knowledge that we have that you can get-- you can address your landscape management objectives, your rangeland management. You might the have adequate monitoring program. Look at the trend. Make sure you're going in the right direction. But also be aware that that producer is not going to be there to help you with some of those man's-- with some of those problems if he's not making money. And so, it's just I would say more than anything have an open communication because each ranch is going to be different. Objectives are going to be different. Be open and willing to listen to them and realize that that producer knows a little bit of information as well. And try to make it a joint decision as much as possible when you start to talk about range improvements, when you start talking about movement, when you start talking about time and dates on and off. To me, communication and just having an awareness that for most producers, then I would say the lines-- the vast majority of producers, they don't want to hurt their resource because that is going to be, you know, their future when they're out there and they want to manage it in a way that they're going to have it for decades to come as well and their family well. So, it's a-- there's a mutual, you know? The livestock industry needs to get something out of it and rangeland management needs to be done in a way so that that resource is going to be sustainable and be able to make it long term.

>> Yeah, I would echo that with regard to grazing management. I see lots of ranches that are dealing with the legacy effects of overgrazing that occurred 75 to 100 years ago and-- you know? So somebody new shows up, you know, brand new BLM range con, biologists with, you know, fish and wildlife and they-- We talked about this in the episode with Floyd Reed. They look at the landscape and in their mental scale of rangeland health, you know, maybe they give it a 5 on a scale of 1 to 10. And they'd like it to be, you know, an 8 or better. And the rancher may be aware that it was at a 2 20 years ago. And he's been making some progress since then when that progress doesn't happen quickly, usually on semiarid rangelands. And in my experience, ranchers typically have pretty good observations about what's going on in the plant community. And many of those changes don't happen directly or even primarily in response to livestock grazing. A lot of those changes in the plant community are fairly episodic in response to a variety of climate variables that may have nothing whatsoever to do with livestock grazing. And I think most places we don't have an excessive number of livestock out there anymore. But the positive change doesn't happen overnight. And so what's important for new people, when I say new, new to a location, new to a job, new to a context, new to individual ranchers to listen more than you talk and give it a little time.

>> Right. And also in all honesty, I'll just add to that, I mean, ask the right questions, you know? And not in a way because that rancher or that permittee may have knowledge like you're saying of legacy effects of some management that happened decades ago that is doing. I know a colleague of mine at ALU and [inaudible] Research Center in Union will look at less than more. She's shown that the, you know, the Homestead Act when it occurred and when people tried to grow crops in a lot of this region, it didn't work well because of high elevation and water. But yet when they plow the ground and did that, that legacy effect is still seen today. And people think it might be just due to grazing. And I don't want to say grazing is always good. It can be bad if it's not done right. But it may not be due to grazing some of the issues that may be on that landscape. And with the communication that goes on between hopefully a range con and the permittee, cattle grazing depending on your objective can be a wonderful tool in an economical tool on the landscape scale.

>> Right, especially for some of the problems that we have on large acreages, there's not enough money to support mechanical and chemical treatments to do anything about it, you know, in certain areas. Sometimes that money materializes. But in general, you know, people like to talk about sustainability that includes economic sustainability. And, yeah, we've got to use some of the least expensive tools to accomplish something if we're going to make a difference. Yeah. I think one of the problems with relationships is the assumption that ranchers don't know what they're doing that all of the rangeland conditions that a person sees today are the direct result of whoever has been managing there in the last 10 years. And your point about the Homestead Act is apropos, you know, at one point there were only 640 acres allocated to a family. And in a landscape where you would ordinarily, you know, we might say it takes 50 acres to run a cow, you can't make a living on 640 acres if it only grows 400 pounds of usable forage per year. And that took a long time to recover from. I've seen a number of places in Washington State where there was dryland wheat farming back in the 1950s in places where there never should have been dryland wheat, never should have been a plow in it. And those often got planted back to, you know, say a two or three grass mixture. And those two to three species were pretty persistent for about 25 to 30 years and it-- I'm not sure exactly what all the soil processes are that change-- or mature over that period of time before something starts to be different. But typically it takes 25 to 30 years before you start to see the plant diversify and allow some of the historical natives or even more diverse suite of naturalized species to move back in and provide some variety. So the timeframe required for that kind of change is often fairly long. And again, it may be that it requires back to back variables. I think I've mentioned before that I saw somebody from Utah State, I believe, disguising long-term plant community change on one of the Utah experiment stations and they were analyzing changes in plant community based on, you know, whatever climate variables they could find to try to attribute to. And one of the things that came out was that there were back to back years of above average spring precipitation. There were really punctuated changes in plant species composition, because you would have-- you know, if viable seed production is episodic, then you get one year where you produce good seed. But if the next year is a drought year, maybe there's not sufficient moisture to germinate all that seed that you produced in year one. And so, back to back years of good spring precipitation would result in dramatic increase, in this case, of perennial wildflowers and other forms. But you may wait-- you might wait 20 years for those stars to line up and make a difference.

>> Right, exactly. And, you know, kind of related to that, some work we did [inaudible] and I did when I first got here, looking at the effects of that preset also on forage quality. One of the things that we've seen is that if we have a below average crop year preset. And again, I know the average thing but if we have-- essentially when a lot of this called drought to moderate drought, where we don't get adequate spring preset to get that grass to really grow well and take off, forage quality is actually pretty darn good. And, you know, a lot of the old timers will say or the ranchers will say, you know, the grass, there wasn't much out there but it was pretty strong this year. And our data, what we've shown was that in those drought years, that plant just doesn't have a-- have the resources what-- the preset, the water resource to really go vegetated and put up all the lignin and the cellulose and everything, the structure and go reproductive, the seedheads, and the plant stays really good-- fairly good quality. There may not be as much there but it's good quality. And the animals perform well if you're not overstock versus a year that's either at above average where you get a lot of forage growth, you know, you get really good nutrition or forage quality in that plant early on, but then it falls off dramatically once they really get mature and do that. So, depending on your crop, your preset, it can also affect your management of your cattle and how you're going to supplement them potentially over how we manage them. Because we know that that really has an effect or a fairly significant effect on forage quality, just your crop your preset.

>> Yeah. And going back to your earlier point about doing targeted grazing, that can be-- that can often cost the ranch or something depending on what the environmental conditions are in that year. If you're trying to force animals onto plants that they would otherwise avoid, they're usually avoiding it for good reason. And so when they're forced onto it through increasing animal density, whatever the mechanism is, they may be losing body condition during that period of time because they're consuming something that's below what their requirements are. And I think for that reason, there's interest in looking at things like service contracts.

>> Exactly. That's where I was--

>> If somebody is grazing BLM range in the springtime to try to stop medusahead, you know, they don't have those targeted grazing treatment AUMs removed from their AUMs for the year.

>> Right. And, you know, and that's exactly-- there-- that's a line of research that's actively going on right now, which I'm sure you're-- I know you're aware of. I know very Barry Perryman down in Nevada, Kirk Davies here, and Chad Boyd, others that are looking at that as specifically, and I know folks at the University of Idaho as well for sure that, you know, if we can use cattle especially on the landscape scale to start addressing some of those environmental or land management objectives, you know, it just makes sense that there's some kind of ecosystem service contract because, you know, there is a value to that. And-- But we have to do the work again, you know? I guess that's job security, but we have to do the work to show what that benefit may be. Because, you know, look-- you know, we're spending, what, $3 billion a year on federal fire suppression, I think the last number I saw. So, you know, if we can reduce that number, you know, that's a benefit. I mean, it's not a cost, right, because it didn't. But it's a benefit because we're-- we might be able to mitigate some of the fire-prone areas simply by grazing is one example. There's others. So yeah, I really think what you're talking about there is an area that I see is definitely potential to help the sustainability of livestock and rangeland management operations our ecosystem or service contracts for sure.

>> And in doing that, we have to acknowledge that some of the value comes from a cost that is borne by the ranchers.

>> Absolutely. That's correct.

>> Well, Dave, is there a place people can go to find more information if they're interested in getting into some of this nutritional and fetal programming stuff in more depth?

>> Sure. The easiest way to do it and so you don't have to write it down is if you type in E-O-A-R-C into Google or anywhere and you'll pop up our website, the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center, that's what it stands for, E-O-A-R-C. And you'll come to our website. We have a station in Burns. We have a station in Union. And you can find the information that's there. Our contact information is there and should be able to help you out if you got any specific questions.

>> [Background Music] That sounds good. David, thank you for your time.

>> I appreciate it. Thank you very much for the opportunity.

>> Thank you for listening to the Art of Range podcast. You can subscribe to and review the show through iTunes or 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 show at 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.

We want your input

Future podcasting funding depends on listener feedback. Please take a minute of your time to respond to this short survey.

Give Feedback

Taking suggestions

Have a question for us to answer on air, or a topic suggestion for a future episode? Email