New study helps cattle ranchers monitor ecological impact on U.S. rangelands

  • A new study lays out 20 indicators that could prove useful to U.S. cattle ranchers trying to better quantify the ecological impact of their operations on rangeland ecosystems.
  • In recent years, ranchers have expressed confusion about the benefits of ecological regulatory programs, pointing to the need for a uniform methodology for understanding cattle ranching’s impact on the environment.
  • Some of the indicators include soil stability, water quality, diversity of native plants and bird diversity, soil compaction, ground cover, plant productivity, rancher satisfaction with livelihood, capacity to experiment and community health, among others.
  • While this study doesn’t instruct ranchers on how or why to apply these 20 indicators, they lay the groundwork for future studies that could instruct ranchers on how to best monitor their operations.

Cattle ranchers in the U.S. will soon have a systematic way of measuring the ecological impact that their industry has on rangeland ecosystems across the country.

A new study published in Rangeland Ecology & Management lays out a list of the most important factors for ensuring the sustainability of livestock grazing — something that, until now, has been difficult to come by.

In recent years, ranchers have expressed confusion about the benefits of ecological regulatory programs, as well as which ones to participate in. The industry as a whole, the study said, has been struggling to access consistent information that can be collected and applied at different parts of the supply chain.

“There’s increasing interest and effort among multiple beef supply chain players to measure and track sustainability at the ranch level, but there’s currently a lack of uniform measurements,” said author Patrick Lendrum of WWF’s Northern Great Plains program.

Rangelands account for about 312 million hectares (770 million acres) of U.S. territory, more than 160 million hectares (400 million acres) of which are privately owned, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The industry relies on rangelands to produce around 12 million kilograms (27 billion pounds) of beef annually, one of the main contributors of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

But rangelands also represent important grassland, savanna, desert and tundra ecosystems that play host to a wide range of biodiversity. Cattle are known to graze on land that also includes populations of elk (Cervus canadensis), trees and shrubs like the big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) and many species of birds, such as the yellow-headed blackbird (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus).

A cow grazes on U.S. grasslands. Image via Public Lands Ranching.

The study, led by The Nature Conservancy and WWF, first examined 180 “indicators” that, among other things, may help quantify how different grazing practices are doing harm to local ecosystems. Researchers then narrowed down the list to 20 indicators based on their usefulness and ease of application, including soil stability, water quality, diversity of native plants and bird diversity, among others.

If soil is stable, water quality is high and plants and birds are thriving, the study said, it is likely that ranchers are creating sustainable habitats for local populations.

Many of the indicators, such as water retention and operational energy use, were predictable outcomes for the study’s authors, who had analyzed similar factors in past projects. But some of the socioecological indicators on the list might be less intuitive.

For example, “rancher satisfaction with livelihood,” “capacity to experiment” and “community health” are important indicators of rangeland ecology because ranchers who are culturally connected to their communities tend to want to try out new ways of stewarding the land. When they feel happy with their land and willing to pass the land on to their children, there is a higher chance that they will make efforts to preserve it for the long-term.

“Ranching is often a parents-to-children business,” study co-author Sasha Gennet, director of TNC’s sustainable grazing lands strategy in North America, told Mongabay. “If you’re going to pass down your ranch to your kids or grandkids, you know they’re going to be living a similar life that you have, and you want that life to be a good one.”

Other indicators in the study include soil compaction, ground cover, plant productivity and the condition of river systems, as well as various measurements of animal biodiversity.

The study doesn’t explain how to carry out measurements of these indicators, or even why ranchers would want to. But researchers plan to use the study to develop methods for gathering and measuring this information, which producers will then be able to use on their ranches.

Gennet said the methods should also be useful for consumers who are looking to learn more about where their food comes from and how large an environmental footprint it makes.

Building off this preliminary study could prove complicated with some of the indicators that vary greatly from ranch to ranch, she added, as there is no straightforward way of developing methods that apply to everyone.

For example, one of the most talked-about indicators in the cattle ranching industry is soil carbon, which can be altered by a wide variety of factors, from weather conditions to land-use history and sediment type.

Still, the authors say it’s possible to come up with something useful for everyone.

“If these issues [are] adequately addressed,” the study said, “a select suite of clear, simple, and easy-to-measure indicators of ranch sustainability could help producers advance biodiversity.”


Ahlering, M. A., Kazanski, C., Lendrum, P. E., Borrelli, P., Burnidge, W., Clark, L., … Wilson, C. (2021). A synthesis of ranch-level sustainability indicators for land managers and to communicate across the US beef supply chain. Rangeland Ecology & Management, 79, 217-230. doi:10.1016/j.rama.2021.08.011

Banner image: Cattle gather at the fence of a ranch in the U.S. Image via Wikimedia.

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