University of Wisconsin–Madison

Project Details

Rotational grazing for grassland management is gaining support in the Upper Midwest as a conservation strategy to improve grassland habitat while supporting grass-fed beef and dairy. Our research group is collaborating with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR), grazing specialists, cattle producers, and other public agencies to evaluate the opportunities and challenges of using rotationally-grazed livestock as for conservation on Wisconsin public grasslands.

Highland steer grazing at Hook Lake Wildlife Area, 2017

Monitoring both the environmental effects of grazing and the socio-economic trade-offs of grazing management, we are working to answer the question: is there a win-win scenario in which rotational grazing can be and effective management strategy for both livestock producers and public land managers?

Location and research topics:

Three grazing trials will be conducted at wildlife areas: Hook Lake (Dane Co.), Buena Vista (Portage Co.) and the Johnson property in the Western Prairie area (St. Croix Co.). Animals will be grazed in fenced-in portions of these areas beginning in the summer of 2016 and continuing through the summer of 2020. Research will also extend to a broader group of WDNR sites across the state to assess the potential for more widespread use of rotational grazing to maintain publicly-held grasslands.

Sites of current grazing management on DNR grassland areas. Green sites are currently grazed, yellow sites are planned for grazing in 2018 and 2019 (Google Maps).

Plant community response to Grazing

Rotational grazing, like any type of forage management, favors certain plants over others. Graduate student Jacob Grace and Laura Judge are investigating how plant communities change over time in the grazed areas, as well as the effects of foliar herbicide and mowing when combined with rotational grazing. The effect on invasive woody shrubs is of particular interest, as rotational grazing could potentially help control these plants. This research is being conducted at three DNR sites across the state: Hook Lake Wildlife Area, outside Oregon, WI; Buena Vista Wildlife Area, outside Wisconsin Rapids, WI; and Johnson Wildlife Area, near Baldwin, WI.

Grassland bird responses

Public lands can be used for various activities and involve many different stakeholder groups. Grazing these lands that are used by a variety of people calls for an understanding of how grazing could effect each party. Sam Asper has investigated how grazing public lands could affect the grassland bird community. This study asks the question of which bird species are using rotational and continuous grazing, in comparison to non-grazed public lands. Grazing has the potential to mimix natural disturbances that can provide viable habitat for a number of grassland bird species. The grassland bird component of this project has focused on Buena Vista Wildlife Area near Wisconsin Rapids, WI. This area is home to the largest Greater Prairie Chicken population in Wisconsin, as well as special concern songbird species, such as Henslow’s Sparrow.

Producer demand for public lands

Public land managers in Wisconsin are beginning to see rotational grazing as a land management method that can save time and money while maintaining or improving grassland ecology. However, producer participation is crucial for the success grazing management. This component of the project is focused on what beef producers around the state think the challenges and opportunities around grazing public grasslands are in Wisconsin. Research questions include: What is the producer demand for renting public land for rotational grazing in Wisconsin? Is there a likely market for rotational grazing on public land in Wisconsin? What are the micro-level factors that influence farmer demand decisions in Wisconsin? To answer these questions, graduate student Courtney Robinson sent a detailed survey to just over 1,100 beef producers across Wisconsin.

Understanding partnerships and decision-making

Rotationally grazing cattle from private operations on public land brings together a number of economic, social, and ecological interests. To investigate how to meet the goals of public land managers, graziers, and researchers, graduate student Greta Landis is developing a set of decision support tools and evaluation materials for grazing partnerships. These practices are being developed collaboratively with the partners to help define environmental and social success in grazing projects, and provide insight into public-private partnerships for land use more generally. Greta is also collaborating with Jacob and another UW-Madison groups to characterize vegetation and soil quality on statewide grassland sites.