NSP - How to manage grasslands and rangelands

How to manage grasslands and rangelands?


Grassland development, improvement and rehabilitation


Most grasslands, whether commercially or traditionally managed, have required some development inputs to make stock-rearing possible or more efficient. All grazing resources have to be taken into account and these cover much more than the herbaceous stratum.


Water management


Water is the major determining factor in stock management in most extensive grazing lands; in areas dependent on seasonal surface water, stock must move out once sources have dried. Improvement of water supply by creating water points or improving existing ones, and clearing of undesirable vegetation to allow free access for stock and better grass growth, is common to both systems, and provision of minerals or traditional salt licks is frequent. Water availability is a factor in determining many migration patterns in mobile systems. Without water development, stock would be limited to areas close to permanent sources of water throughout the dry season, and large areas of grassland would not be useable for livestock production.


Creation of water points has been widely used, especially in Africa, as a means of making new pastures available to traditional herders, often with the intention of reducing pressure on existing grassland. Even if rules for water use and grazing management are drawn up, it is difficult to enforce them, especially in times of stress. Concentration of stock around permanent water points is given as a cause of pasture degradation in many of the studies – in both commercial and traditional systems. Water is sometimes transported by truck, which is expensive, but if, as is the case in Syria and Jordan , the pasture is being used as hard standing for herds fattened on bought feed, it can be profitable, whatever the effect on any remaining vegetation . Irrigation is frequently used, mainly in commercial systems, to grow fodder, usually for conservation.


Natural salt-licks


Natural salt-lick (deposits or salt springs that animals lick) are valued in many zones of extensive grassland and are used by both livestock and grazing wildlife. Where herbage is deficient in minerals, which are essential to animal growth, their well -being and productivity suffers. Phosphorus deficiency is widespread and is especially acute in sub-Saharan Africa.


Trees and shrubs


Trees and shrubs are important features of many types of grassland, especially of savannahs. Some are very useful, others are invasive weeds. Trees provide valuable shade in hot climates and seasons and they give shelter in winter. Some trees are browsed and may be lopped for fodder – their fruits can also provide valuable feed. Where firewood is scarce, excessive cutting causes serious environmental damage, as in steppic conditions, where much damage is due to uprooting sub-shrubs for fuel. Some trees provide fruit which is valued by local people – such trees may be retained selectively and given some protection. Woody vegetation is, however, often invasive, especially in tropical and sub-tropical conditions; bush encroachment is generally taken as a sign of poor management and overgrazing.



Pasture development methods




After water supply, clearing is a common part of developing extensive grassland for grazing. Where land is being developed for crops or sown pasture, clearing may involve some removal of stones, termite hills and other obstructions, but, for extensive grazing, clearing usually involves removing or thinning woody vegetation to improve access and grass growth or to reduce tsetse fly habitat. In traditional systems, fire is the commonest agent for clearing or controlling trees and shrubs. Specialized equipment is used for large-scale commercial clearing – tree-pushers, drag chains, bulldozers, root ploughs and root rakes, and, for shrubs, various rollers and shredders; the debris may be burnt. The degree of clearing or thinning will depend on the original vegetation and the use to which it is put, but it is usually partial and selective, leaving useful trees, shade and shelter.  Strategic thinning of woody vegetation has a role in pasture development and improvement, but it must be done within the context of the ecosystem involved, since the removal of trees and their replacement by crops and annual pastures can make major changes to the hydrological cycle and can lead to serious salination of soils. 


Bush control


Bush control is necessary in many grassland types; it is a maintenance activity, while bush clearing is development. Bush encroachment usually indicates faults in the management system and is associated with high grazing pressures; several mechanisms are involved according to vegetation type and management system. Unpalatable shrubs may increase when the more palatable ones are overgrazed; if little dry herbage remains in the non-growing season there may not be hot enough fires to control the bush. Goats browse much more than cattle and mixed grazing is probably less favourable to bush establishment than cattle alone; goats may be used to browse regrowth after fire. Herbicides are used in some commercial systems; they are favoured in South Africa and used to prepare land for over-seeding in the Campos.



Controlled fire is a major factor in determining the composition of grasslands and a widespread and powerful tool in grassland management. Its effect depends on its intensity, seasonality, frequency and type. The intensity depends on the type, structure and abundance of fuel. Fire is used to remove unpalatable grass and enable regrowth and access to the young herbage by grazing stock. It often stimulates regrowth and supplies a green bite when most needed. Fire is also used, as discussed above, to control woody vegetation. Burning of grassland must be carefully controlled and timed, otherwise it can cause serious damage; this is not discussed in any of the studies, although planning burning and controlling fire is difficult and labour-consuming. Since fire has so severe an effect, burning must take the whole ecosystem into account, not only the grass and the grazing livestock. Ill-timed fire can have a devastating effect on wildlife, including nesting and young birds. 




Fencing is widely used in the development of commercial grazing enterprises to delimit properties and subdivide them for ease of management. Block size is generally large on low-yielding grasslands since fencing and fence maintenance are costly; this can lead to uneven stock distribution. Fences are also used to protect forages and hay land within properties.  


Grassland improvement


“Improvement” of extensive natural grassland by introduction of selected local or exotic grasses and legumes has been done experimentally in most of the better- watered zones, and is used by some commercial systems; it is, of course, along with sown pasture, common in commercial mixed farming and more intensively managed grassland. Techniques usually involve at least temporary suppression of the existing vegetation (by fire, hard grazing, herbicides or mechanically, alone or in combination) and differing degrees of disturbance of the soil surface; fertilizer is often used, and when legumes are introduced to an area for the first time inoculation of their seed with the appropriate Rhizobium is a wise precaution.


Choice of species and cultivar to suit climate, soil and ultimate use is very important and, while there is a very wide range of genetic material of pasture crops available, it may be difficult to match them to new areas. Finding commercial quantities of seed of locally adapted cultivars and ecotypes is often difficult. Care in management is often needed to assure the longevity of the introduced species, and maintenance fertilizer may be required. The success of, and in part the need for, over-seeding depends not only on climate and soil but also the vigour and aggressiveness of the native vegetation.


Grassland rehabilitation


Degraded grassland is a symptom of weakness in the pastoral production system and these weaknesses have to be identified and dealt with before further action can be taken. Where rehabilitation of grassland is desirable it should be through management methods, with or without water-spreading. Assuring even grazing over an area, keeping stock numbers within reasonable limits, and avoiding localized overgrazing can all help. Degradation of pasture can have effects more serious than reduction of available grazing; increased runoff can lead to flooding and siltation of more valuable land and infrastructure lower in the catchment.



Herd management


In commercial systems management generally aims at improving animal status and usually concentrates on one, or at the most two, species. Common management practices to that end include: dividing herds into categories so that they get the appropriate treatment, avoiding underage and unseasonable breeding; controlling parasites and predators; providing veterinary care; and using and maintaining breeds that suit their land and potential markets. Commercial properties are often ring-fenced and divided into paddocks to allow herd division and, in some cases, rotational grazing or resting of part of the grassland. Choice of species and breed is in part determined by the pasture and the climate, but, in commercial systems, market requirements are central and, on extensive grazing, beef cattle and sheep predominate. In warmer climates, zebus or cattle with some zebu blood, often developed locally, are becomingly increasingly popular. Cattle are usually specialized breeds, not dual or multipurpose. Sheep breeds commonly raised in Australasia dominate the other commercial areas studied. Traditional systems, while selling livestock and livestock products, are designed primarily to provide subsistence and security to the herders. Livestock are usually multipurpose, producing meat, milk, fibre, hides, transport, draught and manure, which is also used as fuel in treeless lands. They often keep several species, which may be herded separately; this assists in providing a wider range of products.


Stocking rates and stock distribution


Regulation of the stocking rate and managing the spatial and temporal distribution of livestock are the basis of grazing management. The amount of livestock that a particular area of grassland can carry is not dependent on its botanical composition alone, since it has to take into account the management objectives of the graziers and the availability and siting of other grassland resources, notably water. Extensive grasslands are not homogeneous but usually show spatial heterogeneity according to moisture and fertility gradients. Stock may tend to concentrate on the better grassland and ignore poorer sites or those farther from water. Some pastures may be suited to grazing at certain seasons or, as in alpine grasslands, only available seasonally. Stocking must be seen in the context of the whole area available and management decisions made in the light of local knowledge, be it the rancher who knows his property well or the herding group with traditional knowledge of their grazing grounds: extensive grazing is managed at the landscape rather than at the local scale. Since the productivity of natural pasture, especially in drier climates, varies widely from year to year, the maximum amount of livestock that can be raised thereon also varies.




Stratification of livestock production – generally fattening stock under more favourable conditions than those in which they were raised – is widespread in commercial systems, and can be a means of reducing the numbers carried on pastures through the lean season. It also speeds up the production cycle since, if stock are moved to better pastures and feedlots, they avoid the growth checks and weight loss associated with extensive grasslands due to scarce, low quality fodder during the lean season. Markets increasingly require meat from quickly grown stock. Stratified production systems are generally associated with the commercial livestock sector; traditional herders have usually less access to fattening facilities and many native breeds are less responsive to intensive feeding than improved ones.



Social, economic and environmental factors


Often the problems of grasslands and their users are more socio-economic than technical. Better management and improved livelihoods can only be attained if the legal, social and economic problems associated with pastoralism, are dealt with. “Training herders” used to be recommended in many projects, but it is futile to try to transfer technical ideas, probably developed elsewhere, when the herders have no security of tenure, the techniques have not been convincingly tested locally and poverty and population pressure mean that herders will not take extra risks.




Secure tenure of land or grazing rights is essential if stock-raisers and pastoralists are to have secure livelihoods and can invest in and manage grassland in a sustainable fashion. Where grassland production systems are purely commercial (as in the studies on the commercial sector in South Africa, Patagonia, the Campos and Central North America) the land is held in either freehold or long-term leasehold. Commercial stock raisers can, therefore, invest in infrastructure, notably water and fencing – a major use of fencing may be to delimit properties. Since commercial enterprises hold valid land titles their land can be used as collateral for loans. In the extensive, pastoral subsistence sector, grazing rights are much less clear. In the distant past these lands would have been managed under traditional authorities and disputes over encroachment by other herding groups or cultivators probably settled in battle


The land rights of settled farmers are recognized in most countries since they are resident on their farms and obviously use them; the rights of pastoral groups, however, who are usually mobile, are usually less well defined since they only use a piece of grassland at a particular season. If others clear such grassland for crops, however unsustainable, it may be viewed as “development” and pastoralists are at a disadvantage in claiming their rights. In addition, traditional pastoral tenure is not usually strong enough to prevent confiscation by the state, probably without compensation, for mineral prospecting, infrastructure, building or nature reserves. While cropland can conveniently be allocated to individual smallholders, the large areas of low-yielding grassland involved in mobile herding and the desirability of managing such pasture at the landscape scale make the allocation of grassland to individual families problematic (although such allocation has been done in China ). Allocation to groups seems preferable, but at what scale and how to decide to whom grazing should be allocated is problematic.

Markets and trade


Commercial systems are, of course, market oriented, and nowadays most traditional systems sell their surplus production. The effect of freer world trade on produce from extensive grasslands has still to be seen, but meat produced by traditional herders who are far from consumers may be at a disadvantage – especially as urban consumers increasingly demand meat from cattle that have been finished in feedlots or off good pasture.


Herder organization and community participation


Regime and political change have disrupted old herder groupings and hierarchies, and decollectivization has left large areas with a disorganized pastoral sector. Often herds are too small for it to be profitable for a family to spare labour to take them to pasture, and herding communities are fragmented. If semi –arid grasslands are to be managed sustainably, some planning is necessary at the landscape scale. It is now widely accepted that rural development, including grassland development, should be led by the ultimate users. Community participation is essential, but if it is to be effective, rather than token talking, a high priority should be developing some means of having herders organize themselves into larger groups for deciding local herding policy, discussing with regional authorities and sharing herding tasks.




Because of poor returns from animal husbandry a number of commercial enterprises in most of the countries studied are looking at alternative and potentially more profitable uses for their grasslands. Raising game and wildlife is already practised in eastern and South Africa and is probably expanding – this may be for specialist meats, tourism, hunting of a combination. Some mention organic meat. Tourism and eco-tourism is another use of grasslands; in commercial areas its benefits will go to the landowner; the extent to which it will become important is unclear except where noteworthy scenery or wildlife is involved since many grassland areas are remote and have little infrastructure. Tourism is encouraged by many governments since it brings them revenue. However, in areas of traditional herding, tourism must be seen as beneficial by the graziers involved; the owners of large private establishments may negotiate fees, but in traditional systems tourists may be regarded as a nuisance if they make no contribution to local livelihoods.


Grassland in the environment


Although grasslands are of primary environmental importance, not least as catchment areas and sites for in situ conservation of biodiversity, their preservation and proper management are given relatively little attention by environmentalists and governments, which often see the traditional livestock sector more as a problem than an essential part of maintaining grasslands and their biodiversity. Reserves and national parks are many and increasing; they often reduce traditional grazing lands, with little or no attention to their traditional users. Such reserves are for wildlife, biodiversity and often the consequent tourism, but the grassland biome of such reserves requires properly managed grazing for its survival. Grassland reserves as such are rarely mentioned: China (Hu and Zhang 2003) has eleven, covering two million hectares.