It may be hard to believe but ranching is the number-one land use in the state of California. I was surprised to learn this fact, and I’m certainly not alone.

This complex connection of California ranching to food production is a mystery for many. The public rarely understands the ecological benefits of livestock grazing, nor the tough economic returns, according to Sheila Barry, Livestock Advisor and Director of Santa Clara County for University of California Cooperative Extension.

“Working ranches occupy roughly 40 million acres in California,” says Barry. “Whether these working ranches are public land or privately owned, many ranchers represent the fourth or fifth generations stewarding the land and their livestock. The fact that the most prevalent land use in California goes largely unnoticed by much of the public puts ranching at risk.”

Ecological Benefits of Grazing

How does grazing provide a benefit to California’s grasslands? You’d be surprised. But to understand the situation, you’ll need to look back in time.

“With the arrival of the Spanish missionaries, California’s grasslands were permanently changed,” explains Barry. “These grasslands became dominated by non-native annual plants. Livestock grazing, primarily by cattle, has become an essential tool to manage these grasslands, because it can effectively reduce the biomass produced by non-native annual plants.”

More than 30 public agencies in Northern California use grazing to manage open space lands, and approximately 40 percent of the entire state is grazed by livestock annually. That’s because grazing controls non-native annual plants and maintains grasslands. This reduces the risks of catastrophic wildfires, enhances habitats for many native plants and animals, protects water quality and maintains open space.

Reducing Biomass on Grasslands

Here’s how livestock grazing helps California’s grasslands dominated by non-native annual grasses and forbs (herbaceous flowering plants that aren’t grasses):

In a normal rainfall year, many of the state’s annual grasslands produce huge amounts of biomass each year – more than two tons of grass per acre.  Unless this biomass is reduced via fire, grazing and/or mowing, it accumulates year after year until it decays.

Non-native annuals like rye grass (Festuca perennis) and ripgut brome can produce a thick layer of thatch or mulch. This thatch eliminates growing space for native plants and habitat for some native animals.

“Grazing’s benefits result primarily from livestock consuming non-native annual plants, which helps manage the changed grassland,” says Barry. “One cow will consume approximately 27 pounds of forage (dry weight) per day, or almost five tons of forage per year.”

Ranching’s Economic Challenges

Many Californians don’t realize how financially challenging it is to operate livestock these days.

“The profit margin in the livestock industry is generally slim, and few privately owned ranch parcels are large enough to support the number of livestock needed to make a living or even a side business,” she says. “Many ranchers depend on some combination of owned and leased land, including both private and public, for their livestock operations. Many also depend on off-ranch income to support livelihoods.”

California’s Cattle Producers

cattle grazing in CaliforniaAccess to land and foraging is becoming more of a struggle as more open space is converted to housing developments, shopping centers, habitat preserves and parks.

“Millions of people, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area, recreate on grazed park and open space lands each year,” explains Barry. “However, ranchers are challenged to share to their connections food and other products provided from the cattle they raise.”

Cattle producers grazing California’s rangelands mostly have cow-calf operations or stocker operations.

Cow-calf producers take advantage of California’s moderate year-round climate maintaining mother cows on rangeland all year. The cows give birth to a calf once a year, usually in fall.  The rancher sells the weaned calf, which often ends up being finished for beef in a feedlot outside of California. The calves are transported to feedlots where the feeds – grains like corn, wheat and milo – are grown.

Stocker producers graze yearling cattle during the winter and spring when the state’s grasslands are green and nutritious, and the young growing cattle will gain weight grazing.  When these yearling cattle leave California ranches, they also are often finished for market in feedlots in other states.

“California ranchers participate in beef production,” says Sheila. “However, because of the state’s seasonal growing season and lack of grain for cattle feed, they do not typically produce a product ready for market.”

Eventually beef originating in California may find its way back to our tables, along with other products derived from cattle, such as medicines, antifreeze, insulation, vitamin capsules, charcoal, glass, hydraulic brake fluid, chewing gum, shoes, purses and sports equipment.

Sustaining Working Landscapes on Urban Edge

Within the San Francisco Bay Area, more than 2 million acres can be classified as rangelands. These lands provide forage for livestock, and numerous other ecosystem services. They also are highly valued by the urban public for recreational value and open space.

“In private ownership these lands are often at risk for development pressure,” Barry adds. “In public ownership these lands are often at risk from lack of commitment to stewardship and funding. Keeping these working landscapes viable on both private and public rangelands has been recognized as the most effective strategy to sustain biological conservation efforts.”

For two decades, the UC Cooperative Extension Bay Area Livestock and Natural Resources group has facilitated research and the extension of research to keep landscapes working on the urban edge. Some programs:

  • Identifying best management practices, and working with ranchers to implement these practices on the City and County of San Francisco watershed lands to protect water quality while continuing livestock grazing. This resulted in the continued stewardship as a working landscape of 40,000 acres of watershed lands.
  • Extending research-based information on grazing for conservation of special status species. This has been a building block of the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition, which has more than 100 producer, conservation and government entities working to conserve the habitat provided by California’s private rangelands and their rancher stewards.
  • Continued and growing use of grazing and rancher stewardship on public lands, owned and managed by 30 public entities in the San Francisco Bay Area. Working landscapes have been re-introduced to lands owned and managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, City of Santa Cruz, Santa Clara County Parks and Mid-peninsula Open Space District.

Learn more about working rangelands in California.

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