Shifting cattle producer beliefs on stocking and invasive forage: implications for grassland conservation.
To advance the dialogue to define sustainable working landscapes, it is essential to include the perceptions, knowledge, and factors guiding decision making. We surveyed livestock producers in the Grand River Grasslands region of southern Iowa and northern Missouri, United States, to gain insight into key factors shaping decision making and perspectives on effective management practices in the eastern Great Plains, focusing in particular on demographic and social change and producer willingness to reduce stocking rate as a conservation practice. First, a longitudinal evaluation of livestock producer demographics in 2007 and 2017 revealed individuals were older and were renting grazing land to a greater extent than in 2007. Second, when making land management decisions, producers in 2017 focused on economic concerns more than environmental concerns compared with more balanced views in 2007. For those who prioritized the environment over economics, this prioritization was related to both higher levels of education and a willingness to reduce stocking rate (livestock production) if there is a positive conservation outcome. In contrast, a lower willingness to reduce stocking was associated with increasing rental acreage and prevalence of an invasive cool-season grass that responds favorably to heavy grazing (tall fescue, Schedonorus arundinaceus Schreb.). Regardless, about 37% of cattle producers representing ∼40% of the land area surveyed were at least moderately willing to reduce stocking rates to achieve a conservation outcome. In conclusion, our findings suggest that producers' need to gain income from livestock may limit the willingness to enact a conservation practice similar to reduced stocking rates. However, there is clearly conservation receptiveness from a segment of the producer community, which indicates potential for improved conservation.