Resource Consumption by Cattle on Public Lands

Do cattle over-consume resources?

Created 29 January 1997, Revised 4 January 2000

There is no question about whether cattle consume resources. All living things (and even many non-living things) consume resources. The main resources in question concerning cattle in the arid West are forage and water. There are a number of important secondary factors that should be considered as well. These are: predator control, inadvertent killing of other animals, and land use. This last form of resource consumption is admittedly vague, but it is included here on the basis of the larger quantities of land required for cattle production in the arid West.

Forage is probably the resource most commonly associated with cattle grazing on public lands. This association has yielded a good amount of information concerning forage consumption by cattle. Before talking about the effects of cattle on forage, a few words about how cattle graze will be helpful. Domestic cattle are sedentary grazers. What this means is that cattle remain in one area and eat most of the forage in that area before moving on to a different area. By contrast, elk, deer, and other native species (to the West) are nomadic grazers. That is, they do not remain in one place and graze, which minimizes their effect on any given area. It should be noted, however, that grasslands (forage areas) are adapted to grazing, and indeed, require a certain amount of grazing.

Mr. Allan Savory, a wildlife Biologist that founded the Center for Holistic Resource Management in Albuquerque, New Mexico is just one of the people who believe in the importance of grazing. (pp. 10) Savory sees a problem in what he calls "overresting" of perennial grama grasses. He sees the potential benefits of cattle by using them to imitate wild animals. (pp. 59) The hoof action of ungulates can help break soil up to promote growth of grasses. Hoof action can also help in the decomposition of grasses and act as mulchers. Both of these benefits require much higher levels of management however, since cattle will not produce the right effects on their own. Perhaps it should be noted that Allan Savory doesn't actually like cows, he simply believes that cows are the best choice for range management because they are more easily manipulated. With changes, it appears as though cattle could become part of the solution instead of part of the problem. A 1950 University of Oklahoma study agrees. The study found that the total amount of living matter is greater in grazed pastures than in ungrazed pastures, and that the soil in grazed pastures has a higher organic content. (pp. 117)

There are also anecdotal stories of the benefits of cattle. The Ute Ladies Tresses orchid is a rare flower found only in Nevada, Utah, and Colorado. In Colorado, two people with a cattle and hay operation were forced to remove their cattle from certain pastures. The numbers of Ute Ladies Tresses dropped. The following year, the ranchers put their cows back on that land, and the number of orchids rose significantly. (pp. 117)The regional manager of the Colorado Department of Game and Fish, Bill Heicher, also has a tale to tell. Mr. Heicher says that without low lying meadows maintained for winter forage by cattle ranchers, wildlife such as deer and elk would starve to death in winter. (pp. 71)He believes that if the ranchers weren't there, developers would build condominiums on those meadows, thereby destroying an important source of forage.

Still, there is a long history of detractors about consumption of forage by cattle. John Wesley Powell, one of the greatest early explorers of the West, warned the American people about the limits of the resources in the arid West. No one listened to him. In 1912, a former head of the Grazing Section of the early Forest Service said: "The grazing lands were stocked far beyond their capacity, vegetation was cropped by hungry animals before it had an opportunity to reproduce; valuable forage plants gave way to worthless weeds, and the productive capacity of the land rapidly diminished." (pp. 4) This was long before the "environmental movement."

The USFS operates the 50,000 acre Santa Rita Experimental Range south of Tucson, Arizona. Here, stocking a range is based on average carrying capacity. (pp. 65) But even at these levels, the range is overstocked half of the time due to frequent and variable droughts. Forest Service range expert S. Clark Martin says that "Such overstocking would occur during the summer growing season in dry years when the perennial grasses are most susceptible to damage from repeated close grazing." (pp. 7) What this means is that, although that range land is under-stocked half of the time, the half that the range land is overstocked is causing significant damage. That damage likely carries over into those times when the range is under-stocked, as the grasses struggle to recover.

Someone once argued a point with me that livestock create more food because they are raised on poor land. That is patently false. Through every step of any food chain, only 10% of the energy of the first level is transferred to the next level. So, in a simplified example, when a rabbit consumes vegetation, it uses 90% of the energy it gets from the vegetation for normal body functions.

That means that when a coyote eats a rabbit, it only gets 10% of the energy produced by the grass. The coyote then uses 90% of the energy that the rabbit stored for it's own normal body functions. If a wolf eats the coyote, only 10% of the energy in the coyote goes on to the wolf. And so forth.

My point is this, the land on which cattle are raised, though perhaps poor, is obviously still healthy enough to support vegetation. Vegetation directly consumed by humans or used to support a local habitat is much more efficient (90% more efficient) than eating something that eats vegetation.

Even beyond that argument, large portions of crop land are used to produce crops such as hay and alfalfa, which serve no other purpose than for pasturage. If these lands were brought into production for crops fit for human consumption, there would likely be no hunger problem (assuming we could distribute the new excess in food around the world). Livestock does not increase food supplies, it decreases food supplies. (I am not even going to discuss how cattle often reduce range quality, such that once 'good' forage is now 'poor'.)

Somewhat off subject, but important to note, is that historically, humans ate much less meat than Americans and First World countries eat. This is important because of the 10% rule discussed above. It takes 4.8 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of beef.

Water is a less often considered issue when it comes to grazing. Cattle consume 10-15 gallons of water a day, and it takes 360 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. That means that on average, 1 million head of cattle will consume 12.5 million gallons of water a day. One must question whether this is a good allocation of resources in an arid environment.

The entire West (which includes everything west of the Mississippi) exists in what is called 'water deficit'. What this means is that the potential water loss due to evaporation is greater than the amount of average annual rainfall. This is not a problem in the East, where a water surplus exists. But in the West, any water removed from the system is essentially "mined," meaning that it will not get replaced (or will get replaced very slowly).

In the Ogalala aquifer in the Midwest, for example, the water table of the aquifer has declined severely in the last hundred or so years. When the farmers in that area take the last drop of water out of the Ogalala (which should happen within the next 50-75 years if memory serves) there will be no more groundwater for any activity there. Unless water is diverted over land from the East or Canada, all of that farm land will be useless. The same holds true for all of the West. So when large amounts of cattle were/are added to the West, the cattle takes away water from streams, lakes, and human consumption.

Quentin Skinner, a range scientist at the University of Wyoming, has a different perspective on water and cattle. According to Mr. Skinner, water that is diverted from streams to adjoining dry land (for agricultural purposes) allows that water to sink into the soil 'down to bedrock' and replenish the water table, eventually returning to the stream. The rancher then increases the size of the riparian area and increases the amount of vegetation. (pp. 70-71)

An apology is necessary here, for this theory screams for rebuttal. Mr. Skinner makes a number of invalid assumptions. The first invalid assumption is that it is possible to get something for nothing. When water is diverted out of a stream and left to stand on open ground, evaporation becomes a major factor, especially in the West. The evaporation equates to a net loss in water, since that water will rarely return as rain in dry climates. Immediately, water has been taken from the stream channel that would otherwise flow farther down slope and provide water for riparian areas and animals down stream. The assumption that the water will return to the stream after soaking into the soil and hitting bedrock is also invalid. In Flagstaff, for example, city wells have to be dug 12,000 feet deep (or more) to reach the water table. Water diverted out of a stream in such an area is certainly not going to re-enter the stream channel any time in the foreseeable future. All across the West, water table levels have been steadily, and often rapidly, declining. The simple fact is that too much water is being consumed in the West. This is certainly not due solely because of cattle, but cattle do exacerbate the problem. Deserts are called deserts for a reason. They do not have much water. Agriculture is a tricky business even where water is abundant, it is dangerous in areas where water is not abundant. Just ask the Papago about that. Even their small scale efforts failed to tame the arid West. The fact that many modern irrigation ditches and canals follow old Papago irrigation waterways shows that the failure of the Papago irrigation system was not due to lack of engineering expertise.

Speak of predator control, and most people think of Animal Damage Control (ADC), the government agency in charge of population control. There are both federal and state animal control agencies, but in truth, these agencies are only a part of the predator control operations. ADC agencies are often minor players when it comes to predator control. Still, ADC agencies are a good place to begin this topic.

ADC is involved in a numerous population control projects. Not all of those involve predators, nor do all of those projects involve lethal practices. Still, in 1990, ADC killed 809,000 animals. (This number is small compared to the number of animals killed by private interests, as will be discussed in a moment.) Environmentalists argue that ADC operations are primarily for the benefit of livestock interests. In 1990, ADC spent $30 million on population control (not exclusively predator control). Eighty five percent of that money was spent in the West, primarily to protect sheep from coyotes. (pp. 92)Many environmentalists wonder why their tax dollars are spent killing animals they love, in support of a rather small segment of the population. The animals being killed are just what many people (not just environmentalists) hope to see when they are out in the forest. According to Guy Connolly, a wildlife biologist at ADC's Denver Wildlife Research Center, only 10% of that $30 million is spent on population control work on public lands. The rest is spent on private land. It is doubtful that most nature lovers would find that situation acceptable either.

For their part, ranchers counter by saying that they would go out of business without controlling animal populations. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), coyotes accounted for $13.6 million in losses to sheep and lambs in 1990 and cattle/calf losses to all predators totaled $41.5 million. (Coyotes were the leading predator, followed by dogs.) (pp. 95)Ranchers do help pay for ADC operations as well. Of the $30 million spent in 1990, a little over half comes from federal funds. The rest comes from cooperative and other types of funds, which are provided in part by taxes on ranchers. Another important point to bear in mind is that if ADC doesn't control populations, someone else will.

In 1990, ADC killed 13 black bears in Colorado, while hunters, poachers, landowners, and livestock growers killed an estimated 1500-1800 black bears. (pp. 92) ADC agencies in Kansas boast about how few animals they kill each year, gaining praise from environmentalists. However, the number of animals killed in Kansas by private interests is far higher than any western state.

From all of this the question arises about whether predator control is worthwhile. It should be borne in mind that one of the arguments for keeping federal grazing fees low is because of predation losses. It appears that predation is factored in to the equation twice, doubling the return to ranchers. It is possible, however, that each factor accounts for half of the cost. How many people would like to give up the chance to see a coyote, bear, or wolf in order to see a cow? No one knows, but it is doubtful that the number of people is high.

Cattle account for the deaths of animals outside of the realm of human involvement as well. Cattle kill animals both directly and indirectly. In wetlands, cattle step on bird nests, crushing eggs or hatchlings. Cattle can also kill fish by altering the stream morphology. The destruction of riparian vegetation can drastically alter stream temperatures, forcing fish to move. If they do not find another suitable stream habitat, they will die. The frequency of cattle stepping on desert tortoises is such that there are studies to monitor such events.

On the issue of land use, everyone is in agreement. It takes more land to raise cattle on federal lands in the West than it does on private lands in the West and on lands in the eastern U.S. It often takes over 100 acres of land to support a single cow in the West. It takes only 1 acre to support a cow in Georgia. .
(pp. 6) In 16 western states, 307 million acres of federal lands are leased for grazing. That is an area the size of the Eastern seaboard from Maine to Florida. The percentages involved are staggering: 80% of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land is grazed, 50% of designated Wilderness Areas are grazed, 28% of National Parks, National Monuments, National Recreation Areas, National Memorials, and Historic Park lands are grazed, and 35% of National Wildlife Refuge lands are grazed. (pp. 7) Compare this to the fact that in 11 western states, federal lands provide only 7% of forage and only 2% of total feed for the nations beef industry. (pp. 6)

Even the words of cattle supporters unintentionally support a reduction or removal of cattle from public lands. When environmentalists complain about low grazing fees, ranchers often counter with statements to the effect that the condition of the land is so poor that it isn't worth more money. Indeed, federal lands became federal lands for a reason. They were the lands that the first settlers in the West deemed unsuitable for use. If they had wanted it, they could have taken it, but they didn't. Why do ranchers want that unsuitable land now? As described above, it still produces very little forage. It is not untypical for a rancher to lease far more acreage in federal lands than the rancher owns in private land. Wyoming rancher Ray Weber owns 640 acres, and leases 80,000 acres of federal land. (pp. 69-70) Environmentalists wonder why so much land being used and degraded for such a small gain.

Russell, Sharman Apt, Kill the Cowboy: A Battle of Mythology in the New West, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1993. ISBN: 0-201-58123-X

Pendley, William Perry, War on the West: Government Tyranny on America's Great Frontier, Regnery Publishing, Inc., Washington, D.C., 1995. ISBN: 0-89526-482-X

Walters, Timothy Robert, Surviving the Second Civil War: The Land Rights Battle . . . and How to Win It, Rawhide Western Publishing, Safford, Arizona, 1994. ISBN: 0-9641935-0-7

Sheridan, David, Desertification of the United States, Council on Environmental Quality, 1981.

Martin, S. Clark, Stocking Strategies and Net Cattle Sales on Semidesert Range, Forest Service Research Paper RM-146 (Fort Collins, CO: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1975)

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