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Focus on Grazing Lands

Grazing Lands in a Changing Climate

Grazing lands are under pressure from a variety of factors, including cropland conversions associated with high commodity prices, recreation, wildlife, environmental values, an increase in forestry, urbanization—and climate change.

Climate change may have a variety of impacts on grazing lands and unsheltered livestock. Livestock can be vulnerable to sudden or dramatic environmental changes. Lack of conditioning to rapidly changing or harmful weather events can result in catastrophic deaths in domestic livestock.

Warming temperatures and changing precipitation patterns may also have impacts on grazing lands. These include earlier spring green-up, increased nitrogen mineralization, and higher early-season growth rates with more severe mid and late-season drying.

These impacts may vary across the U.S. For example, in the Southwestern U.S., rising temperature and variable rainfall is expected to increase droughts, with negative impacts on grazing productivity. In the northern Great Plains, where low temperatures can sometimes restrict growing season length, warmer temperatures alone or with increased precipitation may increase forage production. In the Southeast, warmer temperatures are expanding the northern range of grass species once limited to the Gulf Coast Region and may increase the growing season of certain grasses.

Responding to Change

Three elements that can impact the success of grazing operations include the seasonal distribution and quantity of forage, the inter-annual reliability of forage production, and forage nutritional value. Climate change is expected to impact all three of these variables.

Producers can make management changes to cope with shifts in seasonal distribution of forage production. These include adjusting stocking rates, varying the season of grazing, and adopting practices that reduce soil erosion, maintain vegetative cover, and promote plant regeneration after vegetation is removed or lost.

USDA’s Climate Hubs aim to better prepare farmers with adaptive responses to climate change by working with producers and partners to deliver science-based, region-specific information and technologies to enable climate-smart decision making. By working with USDA's Climate Hubs, grazing lands producers will be more prepared to adapt to a changing climate.

Find out more about Range and Pastureland management here

Read the Grazing Management and Drought Factsheet here.

This page features information from USDA's 2013 report, Climate Change and Agriculture in the United States: Effects and Adaptation.