A Summary of Livestock Grazing Systems Used on Rangelands in the Western
United States and Canada
Extension, College of Agriculture & Life Sciences, The University of Arizona
Larry D. Howery, Assistant Rangeland Management Specialist
James E. Sprinkle, Assistant Area Extension Agent
James E. Bowns, Range Specialist
GLOSSARY OF TERMS AS USED IN THIS ARTICLE
Continuous grazing - grazing a particular pasture or area the entire
year, including the dormant season (see season-long grazing).
Deferment - a period of nongrazing during part of the growing season
Grazing system - planned effort by rangeland managers to leave some grazing
areas unused for at least part of the year.
Rest - distinguished from deferment in that nonuse occurs for 12 consecutive
months rather than just part of the growing season (see deferment).
Rotation - scheduled movement of grazing animals from one pasture to
Season-long grazing - grazing a particular area or pasture for an entire
growing season (see continuous grazing).
Specialized grazing systems were first conceptualized in the United States
at the turn of the 20th century and became a major focus of range researchers
and managers by the 1950s (Holechek et al., 1998). In the Intermountain
West, deferred-rotation received considerable attention during the 1950s,
followed by rest-rotation during the 1970s. More recently, rangeland
managers have used short duration grazing to more intensively control
when and where domestic animals graze rangelands.
When properly applied, grazing systems are powerful tools that can help
rangeland and livestock managers achieve management objectives related
to range-land and livestock production (e.g., forage production, average
daily gain), as well as those related to ecosystem structure (e.g., wildlife
habitat) and function (e.g., erosion control, water quantity and quality).
However, selection of the proper grazing system is contingent upon the
uniqueness of the setting in which it is applied (e.g., topography, soils,
vegetation types, climate, etc.).
The objectives of this article are to provide an overview of the major
grazing systems that have been used on rangelands in the western U. S.
and Canada, to summarize the conditions under which they may be applicable
(Table 1), and to highlight examples from the southwestern U. S. when
relevant. Our discussion is largely a synopsis of Holechek et als
(1998) recent review of grazing systems (chapter 9), and of Vallentines
(1990) discussion of the same topic (chapters 13 and 14).
Continuous and Season-long Grazing
Continuous or season-long grazing are technically not grazing systems
per se because there is no attempt to leave a portion of the range ungrazed
by livestock for at least part of the growing season (see glossary). Some
have speculated that desirable plants, particularly grasses, will be grazed
excessively under continuous or season-long grazing. However, research
does not support this view when proper stocking is implemented. With continuous
grazing, stocking rate must be very light during the growing season because
adequate forage must be left to carry animals through the dormant season.
Under light stocking, animals are allowed maximum dietary selectivity
throughout the year. For example, cattle and sheep preferentially select
forbs (i.e., broad-leaved plants) during certain times of the year, which
can greatly reduce grazing pressure on grasses. Rotation systems that
restrict livestock from part of the range during the growing season can
waste much of the forb crop because some forb species complete their life
cycle quickly and become unpalatable after maturation. Another advantage
of continuous or season-long grazing over rotation systems is that livestock
are not moved from one pasture to another. Moving livestock too frequently
can reduce animal production (weight gains, calf crops, etc.).
Continuous or season-long grazing work best on flat, well-watered areas
(i.e., watering points no more than 2 miles apart) where precipitation
occurs as several light rains throughout the summer, and where most plants
have some grazing value (e.g., the shortgrass prairie, northern mixed
prairies of the Great Plains). Continuous or season-long grazing have
also worked well in the California annual grasslands where annual plants
need only to set seed each year to maintain themselves, in contrast to
perennial grasses that store carbohydrates for use during dormancy, and
for use during the initiation of growth when dormancy breaks.
Deferred-rotation grazing was first developed in 1895 and later implemented
in the early 20th century by Arthur Sampson (the father of range
management) in the Blue Mountains of Oregon. Sampsons system
involved dividing the range into 2 pastures with each pasture receiving
deferment until seed set every other year. Several modifications of deferred-rotation
have been used involving more than 2 pastures, however, its key feature
is that each pasture periodically receives deferment (typically every
2 to 4 years, depending on the number of pastures).
According to Holechek et al. (1998), plant response for deferred-rotation
grazing was superior to continuous or season-long grazing on Palouse bunchgrass
ranges, mountain coniferous forest ranges, sagebrush bunch-grass ranges,
and tallgrass prairie ranges. Animal performance, however, did not differ
in studies comparing continuous, season-long, or deferred-rotation systems
on Palouse bunchgrass (Skovlin et al., 1976) or coniferous mountain ranges
(Holechek et al., 1987). In the tallgrass prairie, individual animal performance
decreased with deferred-rotation compared to continuous grazing (Owensby
et al., 1973), possibly due to lower forage quality (i.e., older, more
mature forage) in the deferred pastures. However, grazing after seed set,
when perennial grasses tend to be more tolerant to grazing, may allow
higher stocking rates and compensate for lower gain per animal without
damaging range-land resources.
Deferred-rotation has been used as a tool to address seasonal preferences
for riparian plant species exhibited by livestock. Seasonal deferment
(and hence, seasonal grazing) in certain wetland areas can help sustain
a balance of riparian herbaceous and woody plants by alternating grazing
and browsing pressure in ways that inhibit one life form from gaining
a competitive advantage over the other. For example, spring or early summer
deferment has been used to reduce livestock use of riparian herbaceous
plants such as grasses, sedges, and rushes, while summer and fall deferment
has been used to reduce livestock use of riparian shrubs and trees (Swanson,
1987; Elmore and Kauffman, 1994). Thus, deferred-rotation, as described
here, draws on our knowledge of animal foraging behavior to exclude livestock
from riparian areas during the season(s) in which they are most likely
to prefer herbaceous or woody plants. Riparian plant species are often
cited as critical structural components of wildlife habitat for both game
and non-game species (e.g., nesting and hiding cover; Kauffman et al.,
1982, Chaney et al., 1990), and as playing a functional role in capturing
sediment and dissipating erosive energy in streams (Riparian Area Management,
The rest-rotation system was designed by Gus Hormay of the U. S. Forest
Service and was first implemented in the 1950s and 1960s. Although the
original system was designed to rotate grazing and rest periods among
5 pastures using 1 to 3 herds over a 5-year cycle (Hormay, 1970), other
variations of rest-rotation have used 3 or 4 pastures in a 3 to 4 year
cycle. Hence, under rest-rotation, 1 or 2 pastures are rested the entire
year while the remaining pastures are grazed seasonally, depending on
the number of pastures and herds. For example, 1 pasture in a 3-year,
3-pasture rest-rotation might be managed as follows during a 3-year cycle:
1) Graze the entire year or growing season, 2) Defer, then graze, and
3) Rest. This schedule rests about 1/3 of the range annually.
Rest-rotation has shown superiority over continuous and season-long grazing
on mountain ranges where cattle may heavily use riparian areas under all
grazing strategies (Platts and Nelson, 1989). Rest provides an opportunity
for the vegetation around natural or developed water to recover and helps
meet multiple use objectives (e.g., providing hiding cover for birds and
mammals, leaving ungrazed areas for public viewing and enjoyment). Hence,
rest-rotation provides many of the advantages for riparian habitats discussed
under deferred-rotation. Additionally, rested pastures
provide forage for emergency use during severe drought years, and provide
opportunities to implement relatively long-term rangeland improvement
practices (e.g., burning, reseeding, brush control) during scheduled rest
periods. However, a disadvantage of all grazing systems that periodically
exclude livestock is that elk or other wild herbivores may graze rested
pastures, negating some of the benefit of rest or deferment from livestock
grazing (Halstead, 1998).
Other disadvantages cited for rest-rotation are reduced individual animal
performance due to forced animal movements from pasture to pasture, and
increased stocking density in grazed pastures, which can reduce dietary
selectivity (Gray et al., 1982). However, this criticism may emanate more
from failure to properly adjust stocking rates to compensate for resting
20 to 40% of the total grazing area each year, rather than a definite
failure of rest-rotation. For example, research on mountainous range in
northeastern Oregon showed that cattle weight gains per hectare or per
animal did not differ among rest-rotation, deferred-rotation, and season-long
grazing systems when utilization averaged about 35% for each system over
a 5-year period (Holechek et al., 1987). The point to remember is that
the benefits of a full year of rest can be nullified if previously rested
pastures are overgrazed, particularly in arid regions where frequent drought
conditions can impede rangeland recovery (Cook and Child, 1971; Trlica
et al., 1977).
The Santa Rita grazing system is basically a 1-herd, 3-pasture, 3-year,
rest-rotation system that was modified for midsummer rainfall and concomitant
forage production patterns that typically occur in the hot semidesert
grasslands in southeastern Arizona (Martin and Severson, 1988). A three-year
rotational schedule for 1 pasture is as follows: 1) Rest 12 months (November
to October), 2) Graze 4 months (November to February), 3) Rest 12 months
(March to February), and 4) Graze 8 months (March to October). Each pasture
receives rest during both early spring and summer-monsoon
growing periods for 2 out of every 3 years, but each years forage
production is also grazed (first years growth is grazed in winter).
A full year of rest before spring grazing allows residual vegetation to
accumulate which helps protect new spring forage from heavy grazing. Target
utilization levels in grazed pastures are 30-40%. Martin and Severson
(1988) concluded that the Santa Rita system promoted recovery of ranges
in poor condition, but had little advantage over moderate continuous grazing
on ranges in good condition.
A common practice of seasonal suitability grazing systems is to partition
and manage diverse vegetation types that differ due to elevation, ecological
site, ecological condition, or precipitation, and to move animals based
on seasonal forage production in the partitioned vegetation types (Holechek
and Herbel, 1982). Disparate vegetation types are typically fenced, but
livestock movements can also be controlled by turning on (or off) watering
points, a technique most commonly employed in the Southwestern U. S.
In Southwestern deserts, seasonal suitability systems use creosote bush
(Larrea tridentata) and mesquite (Prosopis spp.) shrublands during winter
and early spring, while tobosa grass (Hilaria mutica) and alkali sacaton
(Sporobolus airoides) ranges are used during summer (or during spring
with adequate moisture). Although creosote bush and mesquite dominated
shrublands typically have little perennial grass un-derstory, they may
contain nutritious plants like 4-wing saltbush (Atriplex canescens), winterfat
(Ceratoides lanata), and cool-season annual forbs, which are preferred
by livestock when perennial grasses are dormant (Holechek and Herbel,
1982). Tobosa grass and alkali sacaton are comparatively less nutritious
during dormancy, and more efficiently utilized by livestock when they
are actively growing. Pastures dominated by Lehmann lovegrass (Eragrostis
lehmanniana), a warm-season grass introduced from South Africa, can also
be used in this system to relieve summer and early fall grazing pressure
on native perennial grasses.
Seeded introduced grasses may be an important component of other seasonal
suitability systems because of their ability to provide forage both earlier
and later than native range. For example, rotating livestock through native
range in summer, crested wheatgrass (Agropyron cristatum) pastures in
spring, and Russian wildrye (Elymus junceus) pastures in the fall more
than doubled grazing capacity in Alberta (Smoliak, 1968). Seasonal suitability
has also been used on mountain ranges in the northwestern U. S. where
grassland (south-facing slopes), forest (north-facing slopes), and meadow
(riparian) vegetation types provide late spring/early summer use, late
summer/early fall use, and fall grazing, respectively (Holechek and Herbel,
1982). In Utah, seasonal suitability has been practiced where desert (winter
use), foothill (spring use), and mountain ranges (summer use) are managed
as separate, seasonal grazing units (Cook and Harris, 1968).
Because summer rainfall in the Southwest U. S. usually comes in the form
of intense but isolated thunderstorms, summer moisture patterns are typically
spotty and unpredictable. It is not uncommon for areas of a ranch separated
by only a few miles to vary greatly in the amount of precipitation received
from a storm event. The best pasture grazing system, as originally proposed
by Valentine (1967), attempts to match cattle movements with irregular
precipitation patterns and associated forage production without regard
to a rigid rotation schedule. For instance, when a local rain event causes
a flush of annual forbs in a particular pasture, cattle are moved to that
pasture, and then moved back to the previous pasture once acceptable utilization
levels of the ephemeral forb resource have been achieved. On the other
hand, if a pasture that is tentatively scheduled for grazing continues
to miss localized rainstorms while another pasture continues to receive
moisture, the rotation schedule for the two pastures could be flip-flopped.
Because livestock movements are not rigidly timed to a particular timetable,
the best pasture system requires that land managers command a mindset
of high flexibility.
The best pasture system may also be timed to match seasonal forage quality
changes across ecological sites, and thus, embraces some elements of the
seasonal suitability system. For example, pastures containing black grama
(Bouteloua eriopoda) as the primary forage species may be deferred until
the dormant season when it is higher in protein compared to pastures dominated
by blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis) or hairy grama (Bouteloua hirsuta).
Because black grama is relatively less resistant to grazing than many
other perennial grasses, winter grazing has less impact on this species
than use during the growing season. This approach works best when some
of the pastures in the rotation contain winter annuals and
As with the seasonal suitability grazing system, the best pasture system
may involve turning on (or shutting off) watering points in grazed (deferred
or rested) pastures. Cattle learned within a year to follow active watering
points on a 3,160-acre ranch in southeastern Arizona (Martin and Ward,
1970). Because localized heavy grazing around watering points was controlled
during Martin and Wards 8-year study, perennial grass forage production
nearly doubled with the best pasture system compared to continuous grazing.
Short duration grazing differs from other specialized systems in that
a grazing area is typically divided into several small pastures (also
called paddocks or cells), each of which may receive more than one period
of non-use and grazing during a single growing season. The number of nonuse
and grazing periods depends on the rate and amount of forage produced
within each pasture. Short duration grazing commonly uses 5 to 12 pasture
units in which there are grazing periods lasting from 3-14 days. Pasture
rotations may be conducted more frequently during periods of rapid growth
and less frequently during periods of slower growth. A grazing period
is followed by a variable nongrazing period of up to 60 days to allow
for forage regrowth. The actual duration of each pastures nongrazing
period depends on growing conditions.
Proponents of short duration grazing maintain this system benefits rangeland
resources and domestic livestock production in several ways when properly
implemented, including: improved soil water infiltration and increased
mineral cycling due to animal impact (e.g., hoof action),
increased photosynthesis that provides longer periods of available leafy
forage to livestock, improved animal distribution and plant utilization,
reduced percentage of ungrazed wolf plants, lower labor costs,
better individual animal performance, and improved rangeland condition.
The most attractive contention of short duration grazing to livestock
producers is that higher stocking rates and stock densities can be used
because of the shorter duration of grazing and more intensive
Rangeland research indicates that managers should carefully consider
several factors before investing in a short duration grazing system, particularly
in arid regions (see Holechek et al., 1998, 2000, for recent reviews of
short duration grazing research). Arid areas typically have short growing
seasons (less than 60 days) due to low precipitation levels, cold weather,
or both; this minimizes the positive aspects of repeated periods of heavy
defoliation followed by nonuse, especially when inadequate growing conditions
(e.g., drought) can limit regrowth potential of heavily grazed plants.
Concentrating a large number of animals in smaller pastures that have
recently received high intensity storms can cause soil compaction and
decrease infiltration rates. Increased trail density around water has
been problematic in pastures that have been partitioned around a central
watering point. Short duration grazing usually calls for extra labor for
herding and large amounts of fencing to partition a large grazing area
into smaller grazing areas because it is more costly to fence arid rangelands
(less forage/unit area = more fence needed) than more productive areas
(more forage/unit area = less fence needed). Frequent pasture rotations
can take a toll on animal production measures and care must be taken to
prevent mother-dam separations during livestock movements. Finally, there
is simply less room for error in arid regions to decide when animals should
be moved or destocked; failure to move animals at the correct time or
to destock during drought can cause long-term damage to desert grasses.
Holechek et al. (1998) asserted that short duration grazing works best
on flat humid areas that have extended growing seasons (at least 3 months),
greater than 20 inches of average annual precipitation, and an average
annual forage production of greater than 2000 lbs/acre. However, the same
authors identified 2 cases where short duration grazing might be successfully
used in arid areas: 1) in flat, low-lying areas with deep, productive
soils that collect water runoff from less productive upland areas, and
2) on exotic grass seedings (e.g., Lehmann lovegrass, crested wheatgrass)
where grazing resistance and capacity may be higher than native rangeland.
Some Final Thoughts on Grazing Systems
- There is an infinite combination of climates, soils, topography, and
vegetation types that occur across the western U. S. and Canada, which
makes choosing the correct grazing system a challenge. No
grazing system will work everywhere, or, as Dr. William Krueger from
Oregon State University puts it, every grazing system will fail
somewhere. The system you choose must be tailor-made to your unique
situation (Table 1).
- Implementing a grazing system does not eliminate the need to heed
basic principles of grazing management (stocking rates, season of use,
frequency of use, kind or mix of animals, animal selectivity, etc.).
- Grazing systems require greater, rather than less management input,
compared to continuous or season-long grazing. Increased attention to
range and livestock management (see next point) may often be a primary
reason for the success of a particular grazing system.
- Animal distribution tools such as riding (Budd, 1999), proper placement
of nutrient blocks (Martin and Ward, 1973), selective culling based
on animal behavior characteristics (Howery et al., 1996, 1998), range
improvements (burning, reseeding, water developments), and control of
access to watering locations (Martin and Ward, 1970) should be implemented
in ways that complement the intended management objectives of grazing
- Flexibility is the hallmark of successful range management in arid
regions. Strict adherence to animal numbers and livestock movement dates
without regard to vagaries in precipitation andforage production can
be counterproductive to both rangeland and livestock production. Adjust
stocking rates and rotation dates so that livestock numbers are in balance
with forage supply (Howery, 1999).
- Rangeland monitoring is critical to document both successes and failures
of grazing systems and other management activities (Smith and Ruyle,
1997). Rangelands are extremely variable in the kind and amount of vegetation
they are capable of producing. This variability is apparent across the
land (space) and across the years (time) as anyone who has spent time
on a ranch knows. Monitoring techniques are available to help you determine
how much variability you can expect on your ranch across both space
and time. Monitoring data are really the proof of the pudding
as to whether your grazing system and management practices are accomplishing
your goals and objectives (Smith and Ruyle, 1997).
- Evaluate a new grazing system over a period of 6-12 years so that
several weather cycles can be evaluated (Martin, 1978). This prevents
erroneously assigning success or failure to a new grazing system when
abnormally high or low precipitation years may be the primary cause.
Budd, B. 1999. Livestock, wildlife, plants and landscapes: Putting it
all together (Lessons from Red Canyon Ranch). Pp. 137-142 In K. Launchbaugh,
K. Sanders, and J. Mosley. Grazing Behavior of Livestock and Wildlife
Symposium. Moscow, ID.
Chaney, E., W. Elmore, and W. S. Platts. 1990. Livestock grazing on western
riparian areas. Northwest Resource Information Center, Inc., for U. S.
EPA. Eagle, ID.
Cook, C. W., and L. E. Harris. 1968. Nutritive value of seasonal ranges.
Utah Agric. Exp. Stn. Bull. 472. Cook, C. W., and R. D. Child. 1971. Recovery
of desert plains in various stages of vigor. J. Range Manage. 24:339-343.
Elmore, W., and B. Kauffman. 1994. Riparian and watershed systems:degradation
Pp. 212-231 In M. Vavra, W. A. Laycock, and R. D. Pieper. Ecological implications
of livestock herbivory in the West. Soc. Range Manage. Denver, CO.
Gray, J. R., C. Steiger, Jr., and J. Fowler. 1982. Characteristics of
grazing systems. N. Mex. Agric. Expt. Sta. Res. Rep. 467. 16pp.
Halstead, L. E. 1998. Monitoring elk and cattle forage utilization under
a specialized grazing system in Arizona. M. S. Thesis, The University
of Arizona, Tucson, Ariz.
Holechek, J. L., and C. H. Herbel. 1982. Seasonal suitability grazing
in the Western United States. Rangelands 6:252-255.
Holechek, J. L., T. J. Berry, and M. Vavra. 1987. Grazing system influences
on cattle diet and performance on mountain range. J. Range Manage. 40:55-60.
Holechek, J. L., R. D. Pieper, and C. H. Herbel. 1998. Range management
principles and practices. 3rd edition. Prentice Hall. 542pp.
Holechek, J. L., H. Gomes, F. Molinar, D. Galt, and R.Valdez. 2000. Short
duration grazing: the facts in 1999. Rangelands 22:18-22.
Hormay, A. L. 1970. Principles of rest-rotation grazing and multiple
use land management. USDA, Forest Serv. Training Text 4. 26pp. Howery,
L. D. 1999. Rangeland management before, during, and after drought. Arizona
Cooperative Extension Bulletin AZ1136.
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in home range and habitat use among individuals in a cattle herd. Appl.
Anim. Behav. Sci. 49:305-320.
Howery, L. D., F. D. Provenza, R. E. Banner, and C. B. Scott. 1998. Social
and environmental factors influence cattle distribution on rangeland.
Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 55:231-244.
Kauffman, J. B., W. C. Krueger, and M. Vavra. 1982. Impacts of a late
season scheme on nongame wildlife in Wallowa Mountain riparian ecosystems.
Pp. 208-218 in Wildlife-livestock relationships symposium: Proceedings
10. University of Idaho Forest, Wildlife, and Range Experiment Station.
Martin, C. R. 1978. Grazing systems What can they accomplish?
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semi-desert cattle range near water. J. Range Manage. 23:22-26.
Martin, S. C., and D. E. Ward. 1973. Salt and meal-salt help distribute
cattle use on semidesert range. J. Range Manage. 26:94-97.
Martin, S. C., and K. E. Severson. 1988. Vegetation response to the Santa
Rita grazing system. J. Range Manage. 41:291-296.
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grazing with steers in the Kansas Flint Hills. J. Range Manage. 26:393-39.
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communities with respect to livestock grazing. Pp. 73-81 In Gresswell,
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8-11, 1989, Billings, MT. USDI, Bureau of Land Management.
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the Pacific Northwest. USDA, Tech. Bull. 1531.
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vegetation. Pp. 1-6 In G. B. Ruyle (Ed.), Some methods for monitoring
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Table 1. Distinguishing features of several
grazing systems used in the western United States and Canada, and
situations where they may be applicable (see text for details).
Type of grazing system
May be applicable when you have
|Continuous or Season-long
||Continuously graze an area the entire year (continuous),
or the entire growing season (season-long). These are not grazing
systems per se (see text).
||...flat, well-watered rangeland, where most plants have
similar grazing value, with a uniform precipitation pattern that encourages
regrowth. ...also, may be applicable in some areas of the California
||Periodically defers each pasture in the rotation. Animals
are rotated through the other pastures on a seasonal basis.
||...distribution problems where animals habitually overuse
"convenience areas"; (e.g., riparian areas), or where there are multiple
||Periodically rests each pasture in the rotation
for 12-months. Animals are rotated through the other pastures on a
||...generally, same criteria as deferred-rotation.
||Modification of the rest-rotation system where each
pasture receives rest during both the early spring and summer-monsoon
growing periods 2 out of every 3 years.
||...semidesert grassland where forage production is irregular
and heavily influenced by "summer monsoons" and winter precipitation.
|| Diverse vegetation types are partitioned and grazing
rotation is managed based on seasonal changes in forage production.
||...diverse vegetation types that can be partitioned
and managed as separate units based on seasonal differences in plant
phenology, forage quantity, and forage quality.
||Matches cattle movements to vagaries of forage production
due to irregular precipitation patterns or disparate range (ecological)
||...irregular forage production due to spotty precipitation
patterns, or grazing areas that require special management due to
species differences in forage production and/or resistance to grazing.
|| Frequently rotates a single cattle herd
through multiple, smaller pastures allowing for relatively brief periods
of rest in previously grazed pastures. Use levels are typically heavy
due to increased stocking rates and stock densities.
|| ...generally, the same criteria as for continuous
and season-long (but see text). This system typically requires more
capital investment and labor than other grazing systems.
This article was inspired by a presentation made by Dr. Bowns at the
Arizona/Utah Range Livestock Workshop held in St. George and Kanab Utah,
April 9-10, 1996. Dr. Bowns presentation was entitled, Animal
Response to Grazing Systems. We acknowledge Thomas DeLiberto, Robin
Grumbles, Kim McReynolds, and George Ruyle for reviewing earlier drafts
of this manuscript.
The University of Arizona is an Equal Opportunity/Affirmative
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shown, or indirectly implied in this publication do not imply endorsement
by the University of Arizona.
Document located http://cals.arizona.edu/pubs/natresources/az1184.html
Published September 2000
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