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University of Wyoming researchers are part of a $19M project to learn more about grazing practices

A small group of red and white cattle graze in a scrubby pasture under a partly cloudy blue sky.
Noya Fields Family
Flickr via CC BY-SA 2.0

The University of Wyoming is part of a $19 million project looking at how grazing practices affect soil health and rancher well being. The project brings together researchers from 11 different nonprofit organizations, for-profit businesses, private research institutes and public universities in the United States and the United Kingdom.

"For many years, farmers have been very aware of soils. They pay a lot of attention to soils, they know a lot about them, and they do a lot of management of soils. Whether that's fertilizing or managing how much they're tilling the land, soil management is a big deal for farmers," said Derek Scasta, who is leading the Wyoming portion of the project. "But for ranchers, it's been less adopted because it's less known what to do, right? We don't typically fertilize rangelands. So trying to develop information that can inform their decision making and lead to management improvements and changes is part of this."

Scasta is an associate professor in the UW Department of Ecosystem Science and Management and the State Extension Rangeland Management Specialist. According to him, soil health can mean a lot of different things.

"Some of those are physical, right? Is the soil a sandy soil? How does the water infiltrate into that soil? But then there are all these chemical components that we think about a lot, like nitrogen for fertilizer. And then there's biological components. So all the microbiota, right? The bacteria and fungi in the soil," said Scasta. "But ultimately, on ranches, the soils are linked to the plants, and the plants are linked to the livestock. And then the livestock are important on the social front because they influence the well being of those ranching families and communities."

The researchers will be looking at ranchers from across the country, comparing their grazing practices and data including soil metrics and what kinds of plants are growing in the pastures. They don't intend to manipulate ranchers' existing practices.

"One of the problems when you get into these projects is 'Well, how should you graze?' There can be a lot of, I guess, dogmatic opinions," Scasta said. "Well, the reality is, there are different ways to do things, depending on the land, the resources, the goals of the people."

But the researchers will be using research ranches to manipulate practices and gather data, including UW's McGuire Ranch. Part of the funds for the project will go toward updating the ranch.

But looking at the physical properties of the ranch is only part of the project. Sociologists will meet with participating ranchers to learn more about their practices.

"To understand their awareness of soil health - are they measuring anything like organic matter or carbon? And then if we start, does that lead to some changes? Does that lead to, perhaps they feel like they're more proactive in combating climate change? Or they have a seat at the table in the conversation with that. Or it's amplifying their story, like 'Look, now these ranches are preserving open space and we're storing carbon,'" Scasta said.

He said they're hoping to have around 10 ranchers from across the state join the project as part of the Western Range region. The researchers will also look at Oklahoma and the Southern Great Plains region, and Michigan and the Upper Midwest region.

"We will be making comparisons across regions, and then within regions as well, with different questions," Scasta said. "We want to make some more nationally generalizable conclusions. But then we want to make more regionally specific conclusions as well."

Ranchers who are interested in learning more about the project can contact Derek Scasta.

Ivy started as a science news intern in the summer of 2019 and has been hooked on broadcast ever since. Her internship was supported by the Wyoming EPSCoR Summer Science Journalism Internship program. In the spring of 2020, she virtually graduated from the University of Wyoming with a B.S. in biology with minors in journalism and business. When she’s not writing for WPR, she enjoys baking, reading, playing with her dog, and caring for her many plants.
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