Cattle Grazing Can Help Prevent Wildfires

Farmers and ranchers have been raising cattle on rangelands for more than 200 years. Rangelands provide ranchers with access to nutritional forage for livestock, preserving the integrity of the Western livestock raising heritage. Additionally, livestock grazing can be used as a tool to lower wildfire risk by reducing the amount, height and distribution of grasses and forage that fuels wildfire. When grazing and other fuel reduction practices are not allowed to take place, fuel such as dead and diseased trees in forested areas and tall, dry grass on rangelands accumulate, increasing fuel loads. When this happens the result is a catastrophic wildfire, a fire that burns so hot that the ground is left sterile.

Grazing on National Forests and Rangelands

Some Western states, such as California, Idaho and Washington, are experiencing devastating wildfires due to the combination of drought conditions and scorching hot temperatures as well as a lack of fuel reduction on public lands. The drought has left thousands of miles of rangeland parched, but peppered with forages that cattle can usually utilize for feed through grazing. When this land is left ungrazed, or unmanaged, the potential for a wildfire to start and spread quickly is exponentially increased.

Some states, like Idaho and Wyoming allow farmers and ranchers to graze their cattle on national forests and rangelands. The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 provided permission for farmers and ranchers to graze cattle on public rangelands in a mutually beneficial agreement; grazing cattle on rangelands improves rangeland conditions by decreasing the amount of excess forage material while allowing farmers and ranchers to utilize nutritious forage materials to raise cattle.

An aerial photo of grazed and nongrazed areas on public lands.

The darker shaded area indicates where cattle are not grazed – this area has large amounts of fuel such as dried grass, underbrush and tree limbs, all of which can provide excess fuel for a wildfire. Photo courtesy: Idaho Cattle Association

Wildfires Cripple Communities

The damages from a wildfire are shattering – a single lightning strike can wreak havoc on millions of acres and can drive homeowners, wildlife and livestock from their homes. Unfortunately, a large number of people have been forced to evacuate their homes due to the raging wildfires and, tragically, a few people have even lost their lives due to the somewhat uncontrollable nature of wildfires.

Farmers and ranchers also face the loss of cattle, barns, pasturelands and hay stacks to wildfires and many will unavoidably lose their homes. These damages can destroy the livelihood of families, many of which are farmers and ranchers who will spend years rebuilding their herds, replacing their losses, and putting the pieces back together.

Fighting the Fire

When a wildfire spreads quickly and rapidly, fire-fighting resources are quickly depleted. Several wildfire-stricken states have had to call in military troops to assist firefighters with managing the rampant blazes. Annually, fighting and suppressing wildfires can cost federal, state and local agencies more than $1 billion. Every wildfire is difficult to control, but when a wildfire occurs on public lands that have been grazed, suppression is much easier due to the lack of excess fuel for the fire.

Cooperation is Key

The U.S. Department of Agriculture explains, “Grazing management on rangelands today is a collaborative effort involving landowners, land managers, permit holders, universities, other agencies and the public.” Many cattle farmers and ranchers wish to work together with state and federal environental agencies to find solutions for wildfires and help prevent future wildfires from starting and spreading. By utilizing cattle grazing on public rangelands, farmers and ranchers can reduce the risk of wildfire, and minimize the damages they may cause.


Beef and Water Use: Has the Drought had an Impact?

Lately there has been a lot of talk about water and agriculture, specifically related to the California drought. Often missing from these conversations is the reality that farmers and ranchers have been working for generations to conserve water resources every day, not just in recent years, with the understanding that water is a precious resource.

Over the past several years, severe drought in states such as California, Texas and Oklahoma has reduced the number of beef cattle significantly, resulting in the smallest U.S. cowherd since the 1950s. At the same time, the beef community has been able to raise more beef per animal through improvements in feed efficiency and animal health. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization cites these two areas of improvement as the key to future reductions in use of water and other natural resources.

ChildandWaterTroughCattle, nature’s recyclers

Cattle have a unique four-stomach digestive system called a rumen, which helps them get the nutrients they need from parts of fruit and vegetable plants that humans don’t consume or can’t digest—like carrot tops and almond hulls. These “leftovers” are often mixed into their feed, along with grasses and grains like alfalfa and corn, ultimately resulting in high-quality beef.

Water used in producing beef

Taking into account all water from farm to fork—including water for cattle to drink as well as water used in irrigation of pasture land that cattle may graze on, growing crops (such as the carrot tops and almond hulls) that cattle may eat, harvesting and processing beef, water used for refrigeration units at the grocery store or at a restaurant to keep food cold, for transportation as well as in cooking, and even the water taken into account for food waste—it takes 617 gallons of water per one pound of boneless beef consumed, according to a recent beef industry sustainability lifecycle assessment, funded by the Beef Checkoff.

Keep in mind that water for raising beef is not “used up.” The water cycle we all studied in elementary school still works. Water percolates into aquifers, it runs down streams into lakes and oceans, it evaporates and returns as precipitation, and cattle pastures provide land to filter this water and return it to the ecosystem.

Sustainability is taken seriously by farmers and ranchers

Everything on Earth requires the use of natural resources like land, energy and water—it’s what we do to be stewards of those resources that is most important. Today, beef is produced using fewer resources than ever before. The largest and most comprehensive lifecycle assessment conducted on a food found that from 2005 to 2011 the beef community achieved a 3 percent reduction in water use and a 10 percent improvement in water quality.

Conservation is never complete; farmers and ranchers will continue to work hard to reduce water use and improve water quality. Preserving farms and ranches for generations to come is a top priority.

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