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Individual Highlight

Predicting the effects of climate change on cattle production in western U.S. rangelands

Photo of Cattle on western rangelands
Cattle on western rangelands Snapshot : Forage availability for grazing animals has always been vulnerable to the effects of variations of weather and climate from year–to–year, with some years and decades markedly drier than others.  For example, the Northern Great Plains recently experienced the worst drought in 30 years by some measures, causing ranchers to run out of grass and water for their animals and forcing adjustments to herd sizes, which can have longer–term economic consequences. It is unclear how climate change will impact the western cattle industry—are grazing conditions likely to get worse, better, or stay the same? 

Principal Investigators(s) :
Reeves, Matt C.  
Research Location : Western United States
Research Station : Rocky Mountain Research Station (RMRS)
Year : 2018
Highlight ID : 1522


Cattle production capacity on western rangelands is potentially vulnerable to climate change through impacts on the amount of forage, changes in vegetation type, heat stress, and year-to-year forage variability. The researchers in this study projected climate change effects to rangelands through the year 2100 and compared them to a present-day baseline to estimate vulnerability of cattle operations. The analysis predicted an increase in forage quantity in northern regions, a move from woody dominance toward grassier vegetation types overall but with considerable variability between areas, a substantial increase in the number of heat-stress days across all regions beginning as early as 2020–2030, higher year-to-year variability of forage quantity for most regions. All four factors combined to predict declining grazing capacity in southwestern regions. In northern and interior regions of the West, the benefits of increased forage are mostly offset by increases in heat stress and forage variability. The predicted increased vulnerability of cattle production in the Southwest provides strong impetus for adaptation by livestock producers and public land managers in anticipation of these changes. This study can be used by range managers to begin to think about long-term planning and communication with stakeholders (such as grazing permit holders) about what kinds of conditions to expect in the future.

Forest Service Partners

External Partners

  • Karen Bagne - Kenyon College
  •  John Tanaka - Wyoming Agricultural Experiment Station