Please note that this is republished from my column in the Gunnison Country Times.
Fall is in the air – and that holds true for cattle ranchers as well. Fall means gathering cows and bringing them back to the low country to prepare for winter. Most ranchers have had their cattle on Bureau of Land Management or Forest Service land on their authorized allotments. These cattle (or other livestock) have massive benefits to the environment, the local economy, and fire prevention.
The ranchers pay a federal grazing fee. The fee is adjusted annually and is calculated by using a formula set by Congress in the Public Rangelands Improvement Act of 1978. This formula uses a unit known as an animal unit month (AUM). An AUM is the amount of forage needed to sustain one cow and her calf, one horse, or five sheep or goats for a month. These allotments are also monitored by both the respective federal staff, and they make decisions on moving based on forage conditions! The amount of grazing can vary depending on drought conditions, fire conditions, and market conditions. The ranchers themselves also monitor the allotment, as well as their cattle. They will check for sickness, any wildlife kills, and range health – typically by horseback as many allotments are in such rough terrain nothing else can traverse them. So now that we know how grazing allotments work, let’s talk about the benefits we touched on above.
Let’s start off with the environmental benefits. There are approximately 587 million acres of rangeland, grassland and pastures in the U.S. that are primarily used for livestock grazing in the United States. Most of these acres cannot be used for any other type of agriculture or crop production, which allows ranchers to more than double the area of land that can be used for food production. Here in Colorado, The Bureau of Land Management allows livestock grazing on 7.8 million acres. The National Forest Service has 2.6 million acres of grazing just on the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison National Forests alone. Plus, we must consider the millions of acres of private land being utilized for grazing. In Gunnison County alone there are 200,000 acres in animal agriculture! 50,000 of those acres have been permanently conserved with the Gunnison Ranchland Conservation Legacy. A study done by Ronald F. Follett and Debbie A. Reed, found that grazing lands worldwide account for one-fourth of the potential carbon sequestration worldwide. 90% of this carbon pools in the soil, so it can be more readily transferred into permanent storage in the soil, unlike the rainforest where the majority of the carbon is stored in the vegetation.
The second way that cattle and livestock grazing benefits our ecosystem is the fire reduction properties it provides. A study done by the Bartolome-Huntsinger lab found that cattle grazing is an essential tool in reducing wildfire. A study by Andrews and Rothermel in 1982 found that keeping flame lengths below 4 feet tall was critical to allow firefighters to access the fire without heavy equipment. Grazing cattle on the landscape allows this to be a reality.
The local economy is also impacted by this grazing. Cattle and the associated economy also have a huge economic impact in the Gunnison Valley. Gunnison ranchers produce more than 3 million pounds of beef a year, with an economic impact of $46 million. More than 17,500 cows and calves live in Gunnison County, and the local ranchers sell more than $13 million dollars in agriculture products every year! Gunnison agriculture accounted for 3% of the labor force in the valley in 2003. In 2018, Colorado agriculture generated $7.1 billion in cash receipts – with the majority of that being cows and calves, dairy products, and corn. $2 billion worth of those products are exported to Canada, Mexico, Japan, Korea, and China. Agriculture contributes more than 190,000 jobs to the Colorado economy.
As I said, fall is in the air – which means we are prepping for winter! Most ranchers have finished haying (or are darn close). They are bringing cattle down to their home places and will then pregnancy check. We are all crossing our fingers for pregnant cattle, as our livelihood depends on their offspring! They are also giving fall shots, de-worming, weaning calves, sending calves to market, and checking on general heard health to ensure all cattle are going into the tough winter months in top shape. The ranchers continue their hard to work to ensure we can feed the growing world population!