Updating my website today, I was surprised to see that I hadn’t posted a blog since last July. After graduating last May, and finishing the eBook I was working on, I was trying to find the energy to finish my graduate school application for a master’s degree in rangeland ecology, and getting my letters of recommendation. Most of my peers had long been accepted into research positions or vet school by that point. It wasn’t like I didn’t know the direction I wanted to go, I guess I just needed to catch my breath. And now an entire year has passed, my first year in graduate school in rangeland ecology and management is finished marking a year of change.
I spent part of last summer riding along on large animal vet calls, which only confirmed my love of livestock and my desire to be of some use to producers using grass pastures and rangeland grazing permits. The funny thing is that I guess I just assumed I'd be accepted into graduate school, but research positions are hard to get funded. So, I ended up applying for and pursuing a professional master’s degree (classes only, no thesis project or research). In the end, I want to be out in the field working with producers, not designing experiments, running statistics, and trying to publish my findings, and searching for funding. Of course as a range specialist, I’ll be collecting and analyzing monitoring data, but hopefully I won’t be chasing funding for my position. So, it wasn’t a disappointment to not get a research position, the professional degree was a great fit.
While I have some cattle experience, like 80% of my peers in animal sciences at Colorado State University, I didn’t grow up on a ranch. What experience I do have is based on classes and confined feeding in pens, corrals, and feedlots from working with the university’s cattle when I was on the Seedstock Merchandising Team in 2015-2016. We chose our sale animals, halter broke 16 animals for showing at the 110th National Western Stock Show in the Angus and Hereford pen shows, and finished out 36 bulls for our 40th annual bull sale. I briefly lived on a small farm and fed confined calves after weaning. Let’s just say I learned a lot about how quickly the right feeding plan can go wrong with small changes to the source of cracked corn and how it's milled that can negatively affect fermentation rates. Keeping automatic waterers from completely freezing over, and using the right alfalfa cutting was another variable to contend with, especially during the colder months. Feeding wasn’t difficult, it was the signs of acidosis and respiratory distress that I didn’t catch early in a few calves. It was a hard, painful lesson and the first time I realized just how limited my college education truly was.
I was first attracted to range ecology when I attended a Collegiate Cattlewomen’s fundraising event in 2013. One of the seminars offered covered rangeland monitoring and a few of the parents and grandparents of the gals in the club were already using monitoring on their land. In the fall of 2015, I had the opportunity to be the media intern for the Range Beef Cow Symposium, a biennial event hosted in 2015 by my animal sciences department. The producer turnout was amazing, but the topics really hooked me along with a group of young producers that we had specifically tried to recruit for the event. Then attending the Colorado Cattlemen’s Mid-winter meeting and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Conference in 2016 made me realize why the Range Beef Cow Symposium was so well attended. Producers were hungry for range information. Although the head of animal sciences had minored in range during his undergrad, range management wasn’t part of my department. It was offered in the natural resources college a few hundred yards away.
My first class as a graduate student was a week-long field course with one of the steepest learning curves I’ve ever experienced. New terminology, plant idenfication, soil mapping, ecological site descriptions, it was all new to me. We were out at the Central Plains Experimental Station in Northeastern Colorado's short grass steppe also called the short grass prairie. CEPR was created after the Dust Bowl blew the topsoil off the fragile rangelands-turned-farms in the 1930s. The farms were then abandoned or sold back to the government and turned back into rangeland. We were digging soil pits, collecting plant data along transects, all while trying to assess rangeland health, and if cattle grazing in particular, was aligning with management goals created by a very diverse stakeholder group. We analyzed our data, did a presentation at the end of the week and then churned out a 24-page analysis and recommendation report by the following Friday.
Now, I have to admit that previously when I thought about ecology I thought of folks like Aldo Leopold who observed the land in the Sand Hills of Nebraska, implemented changes to try to improve it, and then wrote a book about his success, love of the land, and interrelationships between plants, animals, and man. I still remember in the late 1990s when ecology was focused on “key stone species” that were supposedly hailing the demise of their habitat. So, suffice it to say I was pretty bowled over that all of that was out of fashion and ecology was straining to become a hard science like physics using lots of data and statistical modeling. But genetics as well as stockmanship and stewardship has really become a focus of the current cattle industry, so they’ve been changing, too. Stakeholders that used to be on the complete opposite ends of the spectrum had come to the table to create better quality rangeland grasses and forbs for grazing for cattle and wildlife, as well as using grazing as a tool to change plant diversity and create habitat for birds. Some of the changes in both disciplines are definitely for the better.
While I’d like to say that rangeland ecology as a science can solve all the problems cattle producers have faced since bringing cattle west, I can’t. There’s a lot that can be done to improve rangelands, increase plant diversity, improve wildlife habitat, water quality, and keep the land productive in drought years. But that takes a lot of skill and effort. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, and there have been many proposed ideas that have been tried. One of my professors likes to say rangeland management is a science and an art. I’ve read so many scientific papers this past year that sometimes I think I can’t possibly keep one more modeling scheme in my mind or remember which group sides with which theory, and who created so many exceptions with their statistics that their stuff is too biased to use. The other thing that kind of shocked me was how much focus there was on plants. Sometimes to the exclusion of cattle and wildlife. While I understand that plants are the bedrock of the system, the key word is system. There is a balance that must be achieved between many moving parts. So, the best answer you can give to any question about improving rangeland sometimes is “it depends.” It’s not being evasive. The best practices for any rangeland ecosystem will depend on multiple factors including the climate, soils, the amount of annual precipitation and precip during the growing season, length of the growing season, the site’s potential to recover, and the type of rangeland you’re dealing with, and much more. By the way, "it depends" is also an acceptable essay exam answer if you can justify it.
I didn’t realize just how diverse grasslands and shrublands were across not only North America, but the entire world. What works in the tall grass prairies, like frequent burning to stop woody plant encroachment and encourage new grass and forb growth, won’t work in the shortgrass steppe of Colorado, or in big sagebrush country like in the Great Basin that developed over hundreds of years with fire frequency intervals of 30 years or more. With the invasion of cheatgrass into this ecosystem, the grass can dry quickly and become fuel for lightning strike fires and even move the whole system into annual fire cycles that it can’t handle. The plant communities found in many North American rangelands may have some overlap, but generally they’re pretty different in each ecosystem type.
I studied rangeland herbivores in the spring term, and I found out that wild ruminants have some adaptations that have either been bred out of domesticated cattle or they don’t need them when they’re only out on the range for one season and finished in a feedlot. Yet almost all the research on plant responses to grazing is based on domestic cattle, save for a few studies from Africa in the 1970s and 80s. This leaves the grasslands in the U.S. very understudied for some plant/animal relationships and responses. And there’s a growing body of scientific evidence that symbiotic relationships also exist between fungi and plants, and all kinds of insects, worms, nematodes, as well as the soil’s chemical properties.
One thing I found frustrating is that range calculations for stocking rates are out of date and if you’re using ecological site descriptions that are not current you’re going to make some pretty big mistakes. You’re going to end up overstocking and overgrazing the land although some range scientists will argue that they still work, which I don’t understand. Obviously moderate stocking rates are super important for both the plants and livestock, because the majority of studies have found a positive response in regrowth from the plants, enough plant material left behind to aid in rain water capture and ground water recharge, and the cattle get enough to eat. But if you’re going to use math to figure out proper rates, the details matter. Sure, today’s cattle are more efficient at feed conversion, but they’re also a whole lot bigger. Plus, you also have to take cattle behavior into account, which often requires active management and moving the animals through rangeland pastures quickly so they don’t just pick their favorite plants, unintentionally selecting for less palatable species. GIS mapping software and my skilled peers who knew the program, helped us exclude steep grades that cattle won’t graze when looking at pasture production rates to get the best stocking rate fit for a ranch management plan critique. You have to account for areas that will be under used or unused. You can't just use the forage production numbers for an entire site for the calculation. The ecological site descriptions we had listed cattle at 900 pounds when suggesting stocking rates. Not many folks are running cattle that small around here. At the fall Colorado Section Meeting for the Society for Range Management, one range producer presented a talk on profitability that included reducing frame size for range cattle and you would’ve thought he was a heretic or something. Honestly, I feel like I made a nuisance of myself asking why we’re not accounting for improved cattle genetics, asking where the calculations for donkeys came from because that wasn’t what I learned in equine nutrition, asking, and asking, and always asking. But it’s because I want to understand. I don’t want to go out to help producers, end up making poor recommendations, and lose their trust. I understand the economic component on the cattle side, too. Maybe more than some of my peers that have even less cattle knowledge than I do.
Being in the field and learning to assess rangelands, ranches, and riparian areas on the land without making judgements about past management failures and successes, and being mentored by peers, professors, ranch managers, and visiting experts was probably the best experience I’ve had so far. Although, I’m gun-shy and not foolish enough to think that a college education is the be-all-end-all. I know I’ll need mentorship in my job from my supervisors, co-workers, and ranchers who have lived off the land because that’s hard-earned expertise that can’t be ignored.
This coming year, I’ll be the teaching assistant for the field class and a rangeland monitoring class I took last year. I’m looking forward to teaching because it will help me learn the material better. I’m also curious to see what the students discover as they survey rangelands around Northern Colorado and if anything would change with my assessment after a year of school. I have other stories to share about things I’m learning and experiencing, but I’ll save those for another blog. I’ll just end by saying that as hard as some of my classes have been, I know that I’m making the right career choice and I can’t wait to get more experience.
Remnants of a cattle working facility in the rangelands that are now part of Horsetooth Reservoir, an open space owned by Larimer County and the City of Fort Collins, Colo. Photo by Dixie Crowe.
Red Mountain is part of the Maxwell Ranch, a working ranch that was donated to the university. We assessed a grazing management plan for the ranch in my large herbivore ecology and management class. We also visited several sites to do riparian assessments for my riparian ecology and management class. Photo by Dixie Crowe.
Driving down out of the Maxwell Ranch, there are many ranches that rely on natural rangeland pastures. Most of the area relies on 12 inches of annual rainfall. Water capture from snowmelt is very important and that requires leaving enough plant stubble behind. Of course winter winds can blow snow into drifts so not all areas of the range will get equal moisture. Photo by Dixie Crowe.
The ranch in Campbell Valley has been struggling with head cuts eroding the riparian areas along the riverbed for decades. The stream used to be at the level of the ground that is now 30 feet above the current floodplain. Restoration efforts have slowed the head cuts, but fixing a leaking agricultural water delivery ditch that skirts the northern end of the ranch will be the only solution to bringing real change here. Photo by Dixie Crowe.
Colorado State University's Mountain Campus also has rangeland and riparian areas. Every summer, undergraduates spend six-weeks learning forest and range measurements, plant identification, and more. Graduate students enjoy a fall retreat to meet and build camaraderie. Plus there's a fantastic view of the Mummy Range. Photo by Dixie Crowe.
Rangelands are not just in the Great Plains States. In Colorado and other mountain states, rangelands can be found in mountain valleys and along hogbacks and other geological formations. Photo by Dixie Crowe.
Devil's Backbone is another rangeland open space owned by the county serving multiple uses. It's not unusual to see hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders using the trails. It's less likely that you'll see wildlife unless you arrive very early in the morning. There are ranchettes in housing developments just over the other side of the rock formations to the west and McMansions to the east visible from the trails. Photo by Dixie Crowe.
There are many interesting geologic features to be found in the rangelands of Northern Colorado. Weathering has exposed these rocks along the trail in Devil's Backbone. Photo by Dixie Crowe.
Bobcat Ridge Open Space is nestled between the hogback formations west of Fort Collins and the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. The trails wind through the rangeland in the valley up into part of the Roosevelt National Forest. The site includes multiple use trails, a cabin from the 1920s, and cattle are used regularly to improve the rangelands in the valley. Photo by Dixie Crowe.
A view from the valley floor of Bobcat Ridge Open Space with a Yucca plant in the foreground. The area is frequented by large mammals such as bobcats, mountain lions, coyotes, elk, and mule deer that have also been captured on the trail cameras. There are also a variety of birds including Western Meadowlarks, buntings, Scrub and Stellar's Jays, chickadees, ravens, towhees, Bullock's Orioles, kingbirds, flycatchers, and many more that I have yet to catalog. Some are passing through, and some make the valley or hills part of their home range. Photo by Dixie Crowe.
Soapstone Prairie Open Space is another piece of rangeland owned by the City of Fort Collins. Cattle still run on this range and a bison herd was just reintroduced last year. The area also includes multiuse trails. Photo by Dixie Crowe.
The bison herd at Soapstone Prairie live in a separate pasture from the cattle and are only visible from the road leading into the park. Photo by Dixie Crowe.
Remnants of old cattle operations can be found in reclaimed rangeland across Northern Colorado. Soapstone Prairie runs north up to the Wyoming boarder and includes remnants like this windmill and fencing. Photo by Dixie Crowe.
A dry creaked at Soapstone prairie provides cover for birds and wildlife in the heat of the day. Photo by Dixie Crowe.
Rangelands can even be interspersed with forests in mountainous areas of Colorado and other western states on public and private lands. In fact, the U.S. Forest Service employs many rangeland specialists and technicians. Photo by DIxie Crowe.