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Landscapes are complex creative systems that are endlessly emerging, transforming, and vanishing as a result of ever-changing relationships among organisms and environments—soil, plants, herbivores, and human beings. In the process, all organisms are actively participating in creating environments; they aren't merely adapting to them.
Researchers and managers attempt to understand and manage creative relationships among soil, plants, herbivores, and human beings, but we have become increasingly separated from one another in our endeavors. When we work in partnerships, we can better learn about biophysical processes and participate in managing as landscapes continually create.
To do so, researchers must combine their reductionist thinking and intent to develop “best management practices” with new approaches that consider creative systems. In turn, managers must come to appreciate the value of “reductionist” research for understanding processes and developing principles that apply generally across time and space.
The challenges we face in addressing “critical issues” have little to do with the issues and much to do with crossing the divides that polarize and isolate us. The irony is that working together to transcend the boundaries we create is addressing the “really big issue.”
This case study demonstrates the importance of adaptive management to the resilience of a ranch.
With a combination of strategic livestock and grazing management, especially adjusting the stocking rate to variability in forage production, we were able to increase the grazing capacity and the profitability of the ranch, even during drought.
The major concern during the drought should not be the productivity or profitability of the ranch, but rather the integrity of the plant communities and the herd in order to re-establish the production cycle following the severe drought.
Managing flexible grazing management programs with proper monitoring of weather, forage standing crop, cattle condition, and markets to make informed and timely decisions largely determines the resilience and profitability of the operation.
To condition plant communities for desired event-driven change, plants should not be defoliated during critical periods of their life cycle year after year.
Because animal preferences cause heterogeneous plant use patterns, sufficient time between defoliations is needed for preferred plants to recover sufficiently to maintain themselves and reproduce.
Adequate levels of recovery between defoliations for individual plants generally requires that they go through their rapid growth phase and elongation of the apical meristem, or they may need to set seed, establish desired structure, germinate, and establish seedlings or some other measure of growth/ regrowth, depending on management goals.
Because of the inherent variability of precipitation in most rangeland environments, achieving adequate recovery will require adaptive management that includes variable recovery periods that may be a full growing season or more in some years, depending on weather, level of defoliation, and timing of defoliation.
Goal-driven ecologically based grazing management moved a ranching operation from negative economic returns to profit.
Management adaptively manipulated the duration, seasonality, and frequency of grazing with a goal to recruit cool-season midgrasses. A change to recovery periods based on plant physiology of goal species was a key adaptation.
Recruitment of both cool- and warm-season mid-grasses improved water cycling, extended the grazing season, and eventually increased sustainable stocking rates.
Flexible stocking rates were central to improved profit.
Grazing capacity increased substantially and rangeland vegetation measurements improved after the Howell Ranch applied strategically planned and managed grazing. Increased capacity was realized from more spatially uniform grazing distribution and harvest efficiency rather than improving conditions over time.
Dividing a ranch into paddocks and grazing them sequentially, especially at high stocking density, can even out distribution of grazing and thus increase grazing capacity.
More even utilization across more, smaller paddocks contributes to explaining and resolving the apparent discrepancy between successful ranch-scale applications of multiple-paddock grazing and small-scale studies that found no benefit to rotational grazing.
Stocking density is a powerful tool to manage grazing land resources, as demonstrated on prairie and pasture in Missouri.
Utilizing different stock densities, we can achieve different goals, including affecting diet selection, weed and brush control, improving utilization and manure distribution, and even improving seed-to-soil contact.
We allow sufficient recovery periods between grazing events to increase plant diversity and develop as much above- and below-ground biomass as possible.
During grazing periods we use stocking density to manipulate the amount of forage trampling that occurs.
Trampling can have a very positive impact on water and mineral cycles, building soil and increasing fertility in our perennial grasslands.
We consider the trade-offs among “good” ecosystem services and “bad” ecosystem disservices attributable to past and current ranchland management and how such trade-offs depend on analysis at the scale of the ranch, the region, or the Earth.
We focus on trade-offs in ecosystem services at one working ranch—Buck Island Ranch, location of the MacArthur Agro-ecology Research Center, lying in the headwaters of Florida's Everglades—and managed for 25 years as a full-scale cow–calf operation by Archbold Biological Station, one of the world's preeminent ecological research centers.
The synthesis of how this ranch functions as an ecosystem (species, habitats, nutrient dynamics, hydrology, etc.) is set in the context of financial realities and economic viability.
We develop a conceptual model to visualize trade-offs among ecosystem services and disservices, and provide insight into what it takes to be sustainable ecologically and economically.
The Northern Everglades Payment for Environmental Services (NE-PES) Program implemented by the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) is a unique example of an operating market-like payment for environmental services program on working ranchlands.
The SFWMD enters into 10-year contracts to pay ranchers who dedicate parts of their ranch to providing water retention or nutrient removal services.
NE-PES monitoring procedures were designed to assure that water was managed as agreed to in the contracts and annual payments only were made if contract terms were honored.
Key challenges to the design of monitoring procedures were that the protocol must 1) satisfy the buyer that they were getting the services they paid for, 2) assure the sellers that the services they provide are being fairly assessed, and 3) be feasible to administer over a large number of ranches in an expansive working agricultural landscape.
As with much of the eastern United States, the native plant communities present in Florida when European settlers arrived have been converted to crop-land, pastureland, and industrial forest production.
Increasingly, both public and private entities have been making efforts to restore some of the converted acreage to a semblance of the original plant community for reasons of water quality, wildlife habitat, and aesthetics.
The lack of a commercial source of seed for Florida ecotypes of native grasses is one of the main costs associated with current revegetation efforts.
A long-term program, by the USDA, NRCS, Brooksville Plant Materials Center and various cooperating public and private institutions, has fostered the development of a commercial, native grass-seed industry in the state.
Smutgrass (Sporobolus indicus) is an invasive plant in Florida sandy soils, prevalent in central and south Florida where temperatures seldom drop below freezing and hard frost events are infrequent.
Smutgrass becomes nonpalatable to cattle as it matures and cattle avoid grazing it after the emergence of seed stalks and when leaves become tough. However, young smutgrass growth is palatable to cattle.
High stocking densities in combination with severe defoliation have proven deleterious for this grass. This study evaluated the use of increased stock density and rotational grazing management for 3 years following a one-time defoliation by mowing or burning smutgrass infested pastures.