University of California Cooperative Extension researchers just completed a timely study showing cattle grazing is an essential tool in reducing wildfire — a tool they say should be expanded and refined.
Recent record-shattering wildfires across California, Oregon and Washington have demonstrated the need for better fire control.
Researchers say their study shows that without the 1.8 million beef cattle that graze California's rangelands annually, the state would have hundreds to thousands of additional pounds per acre of fine fuels on the landscape, and this year's wildfires would be even more devastating. Researchers say cattle grazing is underutilized on public and private lands and targeted grazing should be expanded.
"Cattle grazing directly impacts fuel load and fire behavior," said Felix Ratcliff, a rangeland consultant who contributed to the research.
Researchers say more private landowners and public land agencies should contract for grazing.
About 40% of California is grazed, according to Sheila Barry, University of California natural resource and livestock adviser and researcher in the study.
But many grazable acres aren't grazed, she said.
The public, said Barry, often don't see benefits of grazing; they see short grass and cow patties. Cattle's role in preventing wildfires, she said, is often overlooked.
Justin Oldfield, executive director of the California Cattle Council, which funded the research, told the Capital Press he hopes the study demonstrates grazing benefits.
Some public land agencies already use cattle.
Allison Rofe, rangeland specialist for East Bay Parks in California, said she considers cattle grazing of annual grasslands the "single most effective passive management tool" in fire control.
The East Bay Regional Park District, she said, leases 70% of its 123,000 acres for grazing.
Rofe said the district's popular lease program has a waiting list.
Alan Renz, a cattle rancher with 20 leases, said leasing public land demands more driving time, diesel and employees. But it also provides financial opportunities, forage and security; if one property burns, he still has 19 others.
But grazing more land isn't the end-all solution. Researchers say grazing needs to be targeted.
Statewide, researchers found cattle remove, on average, 596 pounds per acre of fuel. In some regions, cattle would need to consume another 180 pounds per acre to bring grass down to four feet, a critical threshold for accessibility to firefighters.
Not every area should be grazed to four feet, researchers say. Farmers have competing goals. Preventing erosion and promoting forage require more grass, while preventing fire requires less.
Renz, the rancher, called it a balancing act.
"If I don't graze it enough, fire. If I graze it all the way down, nothing left to eat," he said.
Devii Rao, livestock and natural resources adviser at the University of California Cooperative Extension and the study's lead, said ranchers should target grazing around homes, infrastructure, roadsides and at the wildland-urban interface.
Researchers also encourage ranchers to consider mixed-species grazing.
"There are so many things we can do better. Cattle grazing is really important to fire safety, and it's time we have more conversations about it," said Rao.