University of Wisconsin–Madison

Unexpected Allies: Continuing the conversation on grazing public lands at the GrassWorks Grazing Conference

“What does it mean for grazing on public land to be both financially viable ­and acceptable to the public?” This was the central question the grazing team asked at the GrassWorks Grazing Conference in February 2017, where Courtney, Jacob, Sam, and Greta ran a roundtable discussion session titled “Unexpected Allies.” This discussion included land managers from the Department of Natural Resources, producers, graduate students, and other attendees in a conversation on grazing public lands focused on these two major issues: navigating profitability and public perceptions of grazing public land.

Courtney and Greta facilitating the discussion

Small groups first discussed the profitability of grazing public lands, with the conversation focused on writing grazing management plans and contracts, planning for potential conflicts or emergencies, and considering cultural differences between producers and land managers. Participants suggested that grazing contracts must be sensitive to the variability in size and scope of public lands in addition well as the health and forage needs of cattle. These considerations are critical in determining contract length, grazing intensity, and location. Sites should be assessed for potential risks to both cattle and to wildlife conservation. They mentioned that making a grazing plan feel as secure as possible is important to avoiding over-burdening producers.
Alongside planning and writing contracts, participants noted that a number of cultural considerations are necessary in a successful grazing plan. Frequent interaction, clarification, and feedback between the DNR and livestock producers is essential to meet multiple goals. Additionally, the scientific consistency provided by university of research is important, but needs to be balanced with conservation goals and flexibility of contracts in order to minimize skewing of goals in grazing activities. Overall, as participants noted from experience and ongoing grazing projects, clear communication and guidelines are key when managing the profitability of grazing public land.

Land managers, graziers, and grad students discuss different grazing scenarios and questions in small groups

The groups also discussed the public perceptions of grazing public land. From the experiences of both graziers and land managers, it seemed that public perception is highly variable. However, producers and public land mangers agreed it is possible to successfully change negative opinions by framing and marketing the issues clearly. With regard to framing, presenting grazing in terms of management explanations for the stakeholders in light of their interests seemed important to all groups. However, even when targeting hunters’ concerns specifically, land managers acknowledged that some groups don’t want management at all. Groups explained the importance of emphasizing to hunters that the land will remain intact for hunting and cattle will be moved off the land by hunting season. Because of the financial investment of hunters from permits and hunting licenses, explaining the potential benefits of grazing to hunters is crucial to the success of the grazing projects.

The groups suggested that marketing can help combat some push-back, and that working at the township level with press releases, town halls, and individual conversations allows for a natural diffusion of conflict and building local support. In addition, producers noted a direct-marketing opportunity with ‘conservation grazing,’ as a way to appeal to environmentally conscious and interested customers. The partnership between conservation organizations and graziers also produces an educational opportunity, which furthers a personal connection with the public. However, outreach should be selective and not excessive. Too much public relations work prior to a success story can cause public distrust.

Notes from the discussion session–how should land managers, graziers, and students talk about grazing with the general public?

The question of how and when rotational grazing on public land can meet the needs of both conservation and agriculture is on our minds as we prepare to collect measurements and assist with the next season of grazing. We’re very grateful for those who joined and participated in this discussion at the GrassWorks Grazing Conference. Looking forward to continuing the conversation soon!

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