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How to Reduce the Spread of Wildfires: A New Study Identifies Cattle Grazing as the Newest Solution

California has had one of its most devastating years in terms of wildfires, with rampant fires spreading across the state for weeks. In 2020 alone, there have been an estimated 8,320 wildfires, 31 fatalities, 8,687 structures damaged, and over 4 million acres burned. Politicians, researchers, environmentalists, and public safety experts have been brainstorming on how to change the course that California has been witnessing over the last few years – They are trying to identify a solution to reduce the acres burned by wildfires so that fewer people are impacted annually.


A recent study completed by the University of California Cooperative Extension reported a modernized approach to the current problem: Endorsing cattle grazing to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire.


The team that contributed to the study included: UC Cooperative Advisors Devii Rao, Sheila Barry, Matthew Shapero, Larry Forero; Luke Macaulay, Berkeley extension specialist; Felix Ratcliff (first author), alum and postdoctoral researcher; Rowan Peterson, research assistance at UC Cooperative Extension; and, Lynn Huntsinger, Professor of Rangeland Ecology and Management.


Wildfires are a result of three elements: fuel (wood, brush, lichen), oxygen (from the air), and an ignition source (heat from lightning or a man). The new approach to reducing wildfires looks at the first: fuel.


By grazing on the lands, cattle can remove the fuel that ignites a fire and fuels the ongoing flames. “Cattle grazing directly impacts fuel load and fire behavior,” said Felix Ratcliff, a rangeland consultant who contributed to the research. The study concluded the following:


  • Statewide, cattle remove, on average, 596 pounds per acre.
  • By increasing cattle presence in some regions, increasing their consumption to 800 pounds per acre, we could reduce fires in the most dangerous areas.
  • By having the cattle consume this extra amount, flame length could be kept below four feet, “a critical threshold for accessibility for firefighters.” At this height, firefighters are predicted to access an area to put the fire out safely.
  • Cattle grazing is currently underutilized on public and private lands. They estimated that this last year the 1.8 million beef cattle present in California decreased the number of wildfires drastically, but more could have been done.


*It is important to note that the precise pounds per acre to be removed may vary by region, depending on various factors including climate, wind, topography, and fuels.


Sheila Barry, University of California Natural Resource and Livestock adviser and researcher on the study, reported that only 40% of California is grazed, leaving most of the land at risk for wildfires. The team agreed that by increasing grazing, the potential harms induced by wildfires could be reduced.


Animals that can aid in the grazing process include cattle, sheep, and goats, although cattle present to be the most commonly identified in the research. Each animal, according to the data, helps reduce the spread of wildfires in their specific topography’s:


  • Cattle (cows with calves) tend to prefer grass species. Cows with calves tend to prefer feeding close to water, within ½ mile and on areas with gentle slopes, under 20%.
  • Cattle (yearlings) tend to feed long distances from water and readily utilize areas of steep terrain.
  • Sheep tend to eat forbs such as clovers, dandelions, and other broadleaf plants.
  • Goats tend to eat shrubs and, to a lesser extent, forbs and grass.


The University of California Cooperative Extension, however, was not the first to introduce this concept, but instead, the idea has been studied for years. University of Idaho Rangeland Center has already identified its implementation of cattle grazing to reduce their most heavily impacted areas:


“One potential “fix” for this cycle of sagebrush endangerment is targeted grazing: focusing livestock on grasses to reduce the amount of herbaceous fine fuel available for burning. The Rangeland Center is conducting targeted grazing studies in pastures in the Reynolds Creek area, in Owyhee County, Idaho. Because this region has experienced more fires of greater than 300 acres than nearly anywhere else in the nation, practical rangeland management tools to reduce the frequency and extent of wildfires are urgently needed.”


The university focuses on targeted grazing to reduce the amount of herbaceous fine fuels present in hazardous areas; they have been working on quantifying grazing effects to reduce fuels, thereby influencing fire behavior.


Cattle Grazing: A Solution for the Future?


Utilizing cattle can bring benefits beyond reducing the presence of wildfires. Consequently, cattle grazing helps maintain and enhance the habitat for many native and grassland plants and animals and supports in maintaining the open character of our iconic grasslands and savannas.


Devii Rao, UC Cooperative Extension Livestock and Natural Resources advisor serving San Benito, Monterey, and Santa Crux counties, disclosed that the number of beef cows in California today is only 57% of their peak numbers in the 1980s. By refocusing on increasing these numbers, we can lower fire hazard by reducing fuel continuity and slowing or stopping brush encroachment into grasslands.


“Widespread and severe wildfires are predicted to increase over time in California. This ‘new reality’ requires that we take advantage of all the tools in our management toolbox to protect public safety while meeting our broader rangeland management objectives.”


Fires raging through California have drastically been impacting not only the housing market but residents of the state. Furthermore, the number of acreage and homes destroyed present to be increasing on an annual basis. Whether we want to attribute the changes to global warming or not, the data indicates that something must change – We must identify a solution to change California’s future. In line with the researchers, using cattle grazing cannot be the only solution. We must also educate citizens on fire safety and increase funding to ensure high-risk areas are cleared. With a combined effort of researchers and politicians in California, we can hope for a better future for our residents – One that is not destroyed by the ongoing blaze set each summer.

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