Confirmation of Riparian Friendly Grazing Proje...

Confirmation of Riparian Friendly Grazing Project Results and Development of Achievable, Site Specific Reference Conditions for Grazed Riparian Areas

Confirmation of Riparian Friendly Grazing Project Results and Development of Achievable, Site Specific Reference Conditions for Grazed Riparian Areas

Ken Tate project photo by Ken Tate

The Challenge

Grazing livestock seek out water, vegetation, and shade that are available in riparian areas. Their tendency to congregate around water has been associated with damage to vegetation, stability of stream channels, and soil and water quality. Environmental organizations and other interested parties have claimed that traditional livestock grazing in riparian areas on western rangelands is unsustainable. However, others point out the lack of tested solutions and assert that there is a need for additional studies and a real workable definition of sustainable riparian grazing. Kenneth Tate, Rangeland Watershed Specialist for the University of California, as well as California Extension Advisors, ranchers, and land managers argued that riparian areas can be successfully grazed through “a partnership that employs producer knowledge of feasible grazing management combined with scientists' knowledge of riparian health.”

Building on a previously funded Western SARE project, Tate and his team led the 2003 Research and Education project Confirmation of Riparian Friendly Grazing Project Results and Development of Achievable, Site Specific Reference Conditions for Grazed Riparian Areas(SW03-037) to develop grazing recommendations based on the previous research and share those recommendations with ranchers, public land managers, and others involved with California’s natural resources.

Searching for a Solution

Tate states that the “results from the previous project provided strong statistical evidence that common grazing management practices such as herding and attracting livestock away from riparian areas are positively associated with improved riparian and stream health. The key result was that the amount of effort or implementation of a practice (e.g., number of days each grazing season spent herding livestock away from the stream) was consistently positively associated with improved riparian health.” This project was developed to confirm these results, selecting aquatic insects as the measurement of riparian health, and to determine realistic, site specific expectations for rangeland riparian health. The project team asserts that creating sustainable riparian grazing management is impossible without a clear and attainable target.

In the team’s opinion, defining sustainable riparian grazing was dependent upon: 1) working directly with grazing managers to identify grazing practices which maintain riparian health, yet are logistically and economically feasible; and 2) conducting research at the ranch and grazing allotment scale to ensure the results are relevant at the management scale. Their goal was to identify grazing management to enhance riparian health on meadow streams.  The objectives were to:

  • Confirm the potential for site-specific grazing management practices to enhance important riparian health metrics, clearly documenting the potential for sustainable riparian grazing.
  • Develop a protocol to establish achievable, site-specific expectations for riparian health, which provides grazing managers with riparian health targets.
  • Extend the riparian grazing management recommendations developed from this work to private and public land grazing managers, as well as to regulatory and natural resources agencies.

Thirty-five ranchers and numerous agencies participated in the project to survey grazing management and aquatic insects across California grazed and non-grazed meadow streams. The study represents about 1 million acres of mountain grazing land and approximately 11,000 head of range beef cattle. 

What was Accomplished

The team declares that “the primary recommendation from this project is that enhanced riparian health in grazed systems can be achieved by traditional livestock management practices, particularly livestock distribution efforts.” Results from the project clearly show that common grazing management tools can be put into practice that will improve and maintain riparian health. As Tate writes, these results provide a unique verification that negative impacts can be overcome with technically simple, low infrastructure dependent techniques.” Most important is that the rancher or land manager exerts “consistent, adequate effort to control the timing and intensity of livestock use on meadow associated stream reaches.” The significance of the cooperation between managers and applied scientists to conduct research at the management scale was also demonstrated via this project.


  • The team was able to develop similar projects examining relationships between livestock grazing and the endangered Yosemite Toad.
  • A rancher can easily translate the recommendations into direct and indirect costs.
  • Producer involvement and support was “stellar,” providing credibility to the project in the industry.
  • The project allowed for valuable and informal two-way education opportunities and interaction between producers, UCCE, USFS, BLM, NRCS, and other staff.
  • Project results have a direct application to the 40 million acres of California rangeland.
  • Results have been presented at California Cattlemen’s Association and California Farm Bureau Federation annual conferences, to formal continuing education conferences of the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Society for Range Management, and other such organizations.
  • Results have been incorporated into the UCCE-NRCS Ranch Water Quality Planning Short Course. This course has led to the development of over 400 ranch water quality plans covering over 1.2 million acres of private rangelands in California.

Post-Project Activities and Impacts

Tate continues his work with the Rangeland Watershed Laboratory at UC Davis. Through this body, Tate is involved with Water Quality on U.S. Forest Service Grazing Allotments, a program that will evaluate water quality conditions, sources of water pollution, and guide management to improve water quality where needed in order to address concerns regarding nutrient and fecal indicator bacteria concentrations in U.S. Forest Service grazing allotments in the Sierra Nevada. He has had a subsequent Western SARE-funded project, Prescribed Grazing to Sustain Livestock Production, Soil Quality, and Diversity in Rangeland Ecosystems(SW10-073), when over 900 ranchers in California and Wyoming were interviewed to capture knowledge and perspectives on conservation goals, use of conservation programs, key ranch management practices, grazing management strategies, and managing for and during drought. One outcome of this project was a well-attended workshop and webcasts on ranching and California’s drought.

Want more information? See the related SARE grant(s) SW03-037, Confirmation of Riparian Friendly Grazing Project Results and Development of Achievable, Site Specific Reference Conditions for Grazed Riparian Areas .

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Location: California | West

2016 Annual Report

For the first time, we are sharing a yearly snapshot of our work. The stories provided here typify the creative, participatory and integrated research Western SARE annually funds – led by land grant institution researchers and graduate students, Extension and other ag professionals, and nonprofit leaders in full partnership with producers.