In Colorado, the CCC’s Associate Director Maria Fernández-Giménez co-leads a team of ranchers, conservationists, government land managers and researchers who seek to both improve ranching profits and conserve grassland birds by using a novel adaptive grazing management approach. The CCC provided 2 Fellowships to this team, which the group leveraged to gain additional research funding. The project started because grassland birds are declining at alarming rates, grazed rangelands are important habitat for many of these species, and the group wanted to see if a structured, science-based adaptive approach to grazing management could meet bird, beef and vegetation objectives at the same time. Past research on grazing management was mostly done via small-scale experiments that lacked the complexity of real ranching operations and rangeland landscapes.
The team decided to test the idea that a multi-stakeholder group with access to extensive monitoring information and using a structured adaptive decision-making approach, could achieve desired outcomes of multiple different stakeholders across a ranch-scale landscape. They had an ideal location in mind: the eastern Colorado USDA ARS Central Plains Experimental Range, which includes big pastures at this scale. They convened an 11-member stakeholder group, including 4 ranchers, 3 conservationists and 4 government agency employees. Stakeholders agreed on their overall goal and 3 sets of management objectives for beef production, bird conservation and grassland health, respectively. Scientists and stakeholders together designed a 10-year experiment to compare the results of adaptive grazing management with the conventional management system for the region—season-long grazing at a moderate stocking rate. The ranchers provided their own cattle for the experiment and the Experimental Ranch was divided into 10 pairs of pastures. The team manages one of each pair of pastures adaptively and the other receives the conventional management treatment. The total number of cattle and grazing days is the same over the 10 adaptive and 10 conventional pastures. But in the adaptive treatment, the team manages 240 steers as one herd and rotates them through the pastures based on stakeholder-determined monitoring triggers. In the conventional treatment, 24 steers are grazed in each of the 10 pastures for the whole grazing season. The stakeholders also worked with scientists to identify how to measure progress towards their objectives, including grassland health, bird habitat and populations, and cattle weight gains.
After 5 of the 10 years, the team found surprising results. Contrary to the group’s expectations, adaptively managed herds gained less weight per animal than conventionally managed herds. As hypothesized, vegetation conditions improved–but similar improvements were observed in both treatments–likely due to a series of good rainfall years. the adaptive treatment outperformed the conventional treatment by creating more variable vegetation structure (patches with different heights of grass) across the landscape to suit a wider range of grassland birds. Perhaps most important, the group learned a great deal about what makes collaboration work.
Key lessons from this project include the importance of building trust in order to support collaborative learning. Collaborative learning, in turn, helped stakeholders appreciate each other’s unique experiences, knowledge and interests. Ultimately, the group evolved from one in which individual stakeholders competed to advance their own interests into a group where all stakeholders agreed that they would strive to achieve all the objectives, and deliberately consider each other’s interests in making every decision. A final important lesson was that learning became its own reward–as stakeholders gained technical knowledge and mutual trust, they became more engaged with the research–requesting to participate in data analysis and interpretation, helping to author scientific papers and present at research conferences. At the same time, stakeholders’ ideas led to additional measured indicators and to new research questions and hypotheses that the team is working to answer together. Perhaps most important, the stakeholders say they are learning things at every meeting that they can take back to their “day jobs” and apply beyond the context of the project experiment.