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Modeling weather and stocking rate effects on forage and steer production in northern mixed-grass prairie

Fang, Q.X., Andales, A.A., Derner, J.D., Ahuja, L.R., Ma, L., Bartling, P.N.S., Reeves, J.L., Qi, Z.
Agricultural systems 2014 v.129 pp. 103
biomass production, business enterprises, cattle production, crop models, forage, forage evaluation, forage production, grasses, grazing, liveweight gain, meteorological data, prairies, prediction, ranchers, rangelands, risk, simulation models, steers, stocking rate, weight gain, yearlings, Great Plains region, Wyoming
Stocking rate (SR) is the primary management factor that influences livestock gains, plant community changes and forage production, as well as economic returns for livestock producers. More effective stocking decision making by ranchers in the semi-arid northern mixed-grass prairie requires clearly understanding forage production and yearling steer weight gain (SWG) responses to SR and high weather variability. The objectives of this study were to: (1) test the Great Plains Framework for Agricultural Resource Management-Range (GPFARM-Range) model for predicting forage production and SWG under three experimental SR treatments and long-term weather conditions on semiarid northern mixed-grass prairie in southeast Wyoming, USA; and (2) quantify the threshold responses of forage production and SWG to SR and the yearly weather variability across years using long-term simulations with SR higher than those experimentally evaluated. We improved upon the GPFARM-Range model to simulate peak standing crop (PSC) and SWG for three experimental SR treatments (low, moderate and high; 0.20, 0.33 and 0.44steerha−1, respectively) from 1982 to 2012 at Cheyenne, Wyoming, USA. The improved model accurately predicted the effects of SR on PSC and SWG across years (root mean square errors from 355 to 387kgha−1 for PSC and from 12.8 to 14.2kghead−1 for SWG). We ran the model with long-term weather data and 50–300% higher SR (0.66–1.76steerha−1) than the high SR experimental treatment. Differential responses of predicted total intake of digestible nutrients (quadratic increase) and metabolic maintenance (linear increase) to these higher SR resulted in a quadratic increase of predicted SWG with SR and high yearly variability at high SR levels. The financially-optimum SR with highest profits was reduced to 0.33steerha−1 for dry or normal seasons and 0.44steerha−1 for wet seasons. Such reduced SR can also benefit land conservation with high PSC and low harvest efficiency. The moderate SR with 25% harvest efficiency was determined between 0.22 and 0.33steerha−1 for dry or normal seasons, or between 0.33 and 0.44steerha−1 for wet seasons. These results provide useful direction for selecting an effective SR to achieve high economic net return with lower yearly variability (risk) and reduced likelihood of rangeland degradation.