Kate Forrest, Rangelands NRM Alliance, Desert Channels Queensland, 92 Galah Street, Longreach, Qld, 4730.  Email:  kate.forrest@dcq.org.au

John Gavin, Remarkable NRM, PO Box 32, Wilmington, SA, 5485.  Email: ohngavin@remarkablenrm.com.au


Conference overview

The 10th International Rangeland Congress ‘The Future Management of Grazing and Wild Lands in a High-Tech World‘ was held in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan Province, Canada – which, it turns out, in addition to being the city of bridges in the heart of the Northern Great Plains, is possibly the friendliest place on earth. The warm welcome was a welcome relief for those of us coming from a southern winter and the long summer days allowed us to make the most of our unpredictable jet lag-induced periods of alertness.

Saskatchewan is located in southern Central Canada and is considered to be one of the Western Prairie Provinces.  It’s population of 1.1 million is mostly in the lower half of the province leaving extensive areas of boreal forest, prairie (both native and cultivated) and farm land in the north.  Even though Saskatchewan produces 54% of Canada’s wheat and 95% of the lentil production, it still has room for 2.7 million cows and calves – although in the winter they can be hard to find with temperatures getting as low as -40 degrees and snow falls measured in metres. Luckily there are plenty of massively oversized pick-ups (their dogs must be world record holders in the high jump) to help people get around when the snow drifts build up.

The congress was held over 5 days, from 16th to 22nd June 2016, with over 550 papers presented in multiple format and field trips were held on the Wednesday. There were 574 delegates from 48 countries. There were pre-conference field trips of varying lengths and pre-conference workshops and meetings on a number of topics to take advantage of this rare gathering of rangeland folk from around the world.

Photo 1.  Examining pastures in Saskatchewan on a mid-week field trip


The conference structure included morning and afternoon sessions of 2 plenary speakers followed by a raft of concurrent sessions while posters were rotated throughout the conference.  There was a series of mid conference tours that all culminated in a lovely evening meal and traditional dancing at Wanuskewin Park.

The proceedings (1100 pages) and slideshows from presentations are available via the International Rangeland Congress website http://www.irc2016canada.ca/

In conjunction with the conference, the International Rangeland Congress meeting was held on Friday 22nd June and congratulations to David Phelps on becoming an Australian representative to the IRC continuing committee and Dana Kelly for being elected President.


Australian Representation and Presence

There were 47 Australian delegates registered at the conference and a number of Australian organisations gathered their wares on a trade booth which was very generously supplied by the conference organisers. This booth allowed a number of Australian groups to promote their work on the international stage in a way that would probably not have been individually affordable. The representative groups also shared the time attending the stall since we all have some understanding of the others’ work. The Australian Rangeland Society, The Rangeland Journal, The Rangeland NRM Alliance and the NRM Spatial Hub all provided promotional material, much of which was snapped up very early in the conference. There was considerable interest in the work of the ARS including the travel scholarships and The Rangelands Journal. Being our first International Rangelands Congress, it was interesting to note the lead role that Australian rangelands research and management developments appear to have internationally.

Photos 2a (left).  The Australian Rangeland Society and The Rangeland Journal on the Australian trade booth. Photo 2b (right). Kate Forrest discussing the NRM Spatial Hub with conference delegates.


The Congress 

First thing on the agenda, after a massive Canadian breakfast, was the pre-conference workshop INRA’s (French National Institute for Agricultural Research) Multi-functionality of Pastoralism: Linking Global and Local Strategies through Shared Visions and Methods on the weekend of 14th and 15th June. The workshop agenda is available at http://www.irc2016canada.ca/pdf/workshops/INRA_Workshop.pdf.  This workshop, and the recurring theme of discussion at the conference, examining multi-use and valuing the multiple resources of the rangelands, was well aligned with the Australian papers presented at the conference – many of which highlighted the multiple values of rangeland land use and the need for interaction between land users.

Australian presentations were wide ranging from soil carbon research to conservation agreements (Territory Conservation Agreements presented by John Hodgetts, http://www.territorynrm.org.au/territory-conservation-agreements ) and precision pastoral management tools (a number of presentations led by Sally Leigo and the team at https://crc-rep.com/research/enterprise-development/precision-pastoral-management-tools ).  These were very well received with good feedback and offering plenty of conversation at the Australian booth. These included those delegates supported by the Australian Rangeland Society travel grant, Kate Forrest and John Gavin. On reflection the Australian presentations and work generally reflected greater interaction with land managers and multidisciplinary research which is not only end user focussed but end user involved.

The work of the Rangeland NRM Alliance was the subject for three papers accepted for presentation at the congress.  Mary-Anne Healy presented the first paper on the use of a knowledge broker to improve interactions between scientists and end users. The example of this was the Climate Change Information for NRM Planning, Rangeland Cluster Project managed by Ninti One (http://www.climatechangeinaustralia.gov.au/en/impacts-and-adaptation/rangelands/).

Kate Forrest spoke about how collaboration via the Rangeland NRM Alliance is allowing NRM regional bodies to increase their influence with partners and government investors via working together. The Rangeland NRM Alliance (http://www.rangelandnrmalliance.org.au/) has 14 regional NRM organisations as members and they cover 80% of Australia’s landmass.  The members work across regional boundaries and jurisdictional borders to promote long term programs delivered at a local level to support land managers. One such project is the NRM Spatial Hub (http://www.nrmhub.com.au/) which was presented on the final day. This innovation in delivering cutting edge satellite and GIS information to landholders generated a great deal of interest.

The recognition of ecosystem services and the potential value of alternate rangelands products was raised throughout the conference and the role that the rangelands may play to help the global greenhouse gas reduction challenge was raised a number of times.  John Gavin highlighted the emergence of the carbon economy in Western NSW and the role this has played in providing a new income source in a pastoral economy dealing with increasing challenges to profitability. This new industry brings many challenges for land managers and regulators with a number of conflicting outcomes between traditional pastoral practices and carbon sequestration projects.  Landscape-scale changes in pastoral and ecological values due to thickening and encroachment are widely-documented in rangeland literature. The avoided deforestation and enhanced regeneration models challenge existing wisdom on what are good outcomes for rangelands. On the other hand, funded projects provide a once in a generation opportunity for landholders to develop infrastructure and improve property management. There was considerable interest in how Australia has approached this, with a number of overseas jurisdictions looking at alternate models for paying for ecosystem services such as Greenhouse Gas sequestration.

Photo 3.  Some of the Australians at the IRC (from L-R) Mary-Anne Healy, Catherine Cowden, Kate Forrest and John Gavin.



The conference theme was ‘The Future Management of Grazing and Wild Lands in a High-Tech World. Over the 5 days this was divided into the following topics: (1) State of Canadian and Global Rangeland and Pasture Resource; (2) Ecological Good and Services of Rangeland and Pasturelands; (3) The People of the Rangelands; (4) Multiple Use of Rangelands; (5) Range and Forage of High Latitudes and Altitudes; (6) Climate Change in Rangelands; and (7) Grazing Land Assessment and Management in a High-Tech World.

(1) State of Canadian and Global Rangeland and Pasture Resource

This topic provided detailed descriptions of the grasslands of both Canada and the world in the plenary session. The threats around the world are human induced and while the causes may be different, the results of fragmentation, competitive land uses, non-native plant invasions, water supply and quality reduction and severe wildfire seem common. The opportunities lie in the recognition of the value of environmental and ecosystem goods and services the rangelands can provide. The major issue is taking data and information and turning it into novel policy approaches to achieve environmental and economic sustainability.

A topic that came up repeatedly throughout the congress, in presentations field trips and discussions, was that of land tenure.  There has been considerable work recently in the US and Canada looking at land tenure and converting some Federal land to State/Provincial management or freeholding.  The rules regarding land tenure and the proportions of federal land and freehold or leasehold land within a grazing management unit, are complex to say the least along with what can happen on the various tenure types.

(2) Ecological Good and Services of Rangeland and Pasturelands

The crux of the problem is that every landowner is the custodian of two interests – the public interest and his own.’ – Aldo Leopold, 1934

These sessions set the scene for one of the major emerging narratives – the need for ecosystem services to be valued and for policy to be better matched to rangeland services which may be slower but are low cost, low input and self-sustaining when managed well.

There was considerable interest and discussion regarding the valuing of ecological goods and services.  Simply put the current economic markets value goods but not the ecosystem which supplies them. While the demand for ecosystem services to society has been increasing with population, the land’s ability to supply them decreases with intensification of use. There has largely been a failure to suitably reward land managers for the ecological services they provide (often through direct short term costs to themselves).  The conference did identify a number of examples where consumers and governments are starting to value the ecological goods and services provided across the rangelands, however there is limited effective policy to deal with this and alternative approaches are difficult to find.

(3) The People of the Rangelands

If you make life so untenable that everyone leaves then large areas will not produce food…that currently do’. – Dr Ann Waters-Bayer

You have national parks because the people who lived there are gone. Savannas are the result of millennia of peoples’ management.’ – Corey Wright

This theme of the conference discussed how people are essential to the management of the rangelands and what is required for them to remain and have sustainable livelihoods. One of the areas discussed was how technology was being used to improve people’s lives. This includes new and highly advanced technology along with the more everyday technology that is available across the world.  Access to everyday technologies of the modern world like mobile phones in developing countries is allowing better communication and having large impacts on animal husbandry, livelihoods via access to market information, animal health care and alternative business opportunities. However not all technology is positive – the increase in availability of high powered weapons has resulted in exacerbated conflicts, stock theft, more human deaths and concentration of livestock near settlements.

This topic also highlighted a common theme of low populations with little political influence being a long way from where the decisions on their direct futures are being made. The observation that pastoralists are marginalised from decision making and forming coalitions to lobby for pastoral concerns was noted as happening across the world.

(4) Multiple Use of Rangelands

The multiple use of the rangelands was recognised throughout the congress. The conflicting demands for resources and how these multiple pressures come to bear and are managed, is something that is occurring across the world’s rangelands. The world is hungry for energy and mineral resources and with increasing urbanisation the needs increase and it becomes ever more unlikely that they will source these resources from city areas.  There is predicted be a 70 -100% increase in food demand by 2050 and the world is hungry for protein which the rangelands can supply at a low cost. However, this needs to be balanced with increasing interest across the world to conserve biodiversity and natural spaces.  The millennium ecosystem assessment (2005) found that 20 of 24 ecosystems have declined in condition since WW2.

The Sustainable Rangelands roundtable developed the integrated social, economic and ecological conceptual framework linking the biophysical processes, ecosystem services and the social / economic processes.  This model provides a range of indexes (biophysical condition, natural capital, socio-economic capital and human condition) that can then be used to compare or assess between land use options. A number of land management activities undertaken by rangelands land managers balance broader societal benefits (ecosystem management) and private benefits (increased productivity and profitability).  This justifies broader public expenditure supporting rangelands management.  Many activities are undertaken to increase profitability but if the private benefits increase and the societal benefits decrease to a greater level it may be that the production gains are a false economy.

There is a need for more collaborative approaches to managing land for multiple use to have best use of resources and ensure management for long term maintenance of the environment.  As the stories of this occurring were few and were generally local, it is difficult to see it happening at national levels through policy. In saying that, there is definitely greater recognition that in many systems grazing and biodiversity are not mutually exclusive. The realisation and recognition that  ‘if you have an endangered species on your ranch, you are doing something right’ and using this integrated management for both productive and environmental outcomes is being better applied in some places. Instead of a strict removal of grazing for conservation purposes there is much more acceptance of the idea of how to manage grazing for conservation outcomes.

(5) Range and Forage of High Latitudes and Altitudes

This was an area of rangelands management that was totally new to we Australians and the congress explored concepts related to grazing behaviour at altitude and also the management of high altitude vegetation.  A number of these areas, by their nature, have extreme winter conditions and significant periods of low or no vegetation response.  The management of these areas and the impact of grazing timing is critical and simply put there is no point in resting rangelands when they are not growing.  Derek Bailey highlighted the work that has been done showing genetic differences of cattle grazing behaviour and this was also used to look at terrain indexes for grazing management.  This work has shown the interrelating factors of slope, vertical and horizontal distance from water all play a part in grazing behaviour.

(6) Climate Change in Rangelands

‘The rangelands have and will continue to cope perfectly well with radical changes in climate however if humans want to continue accessing them for food, water, ecosystem services we’d better pull our fingers out.’ – Kate Forrest

Climate change is expected to have an impact on rangelands composition and activity; the speed and severity of the changes will have large impacts on how well landscapes can adapt. The impact on human populations of the rangelands and those who benefit from the ecosystem services of the rangelands are therefore difficult to assess at this stage. There is however work being done at more local scales to assist managers in appraising possible impacts and designing systems to manage for those changes.

For example, in Saskatchewan, the growing period is getting longer and biomass is increasing.  The winter is much warmer and wetter while the summer is a little warmer and wetter (although water availability may be reduced).  This warming and drying trend appears to have a negative impact on forage quality.

The work of Justin Derner investigated predictive management tools estimating the forage production from spring rain. They multiply this by 25% for livestock intake and use this to buy in weaners meaning they can incorporate seasonal conditions with stocking rate flexibility. This provides an opportunity to match forage availability with animal demand, but it is still related to the reliability of the weather forecasts and the human dimension / knowledge, past experience and judgement.

Megan McSherry found that C4 grasses increased soil organic carbon as grazing intensity increased (might have been a measure from single season clipping to replicate grazing pressure) but this wasn’t clear for C3 grasses.

Taniri Kingi looked at different management actions such as in-shed feeding, changing crops and changing application rates as well as utilisiling different modelling tools to look at the options for climate change mitigation on farm.  The only one that showed reduced emissions and increased profitability was reduced stocking rates.

(7) Grazing Land Assessment and Management in a High-Tech World

For those interested in technology this session had it all.  Drones, satellite tracking, GPS collars and virtual fences and stock monitoring.  Australian presenters who featured in discussion on new technology and its implications for sustainable pastoralism, such as the NRM Spatial Hub and the Precision Pastoral Management Tools,  received quite a bit of interest.

People from across the world are quickly recognising the potential for implementation in their own production and management systems.  Ed Charmley’s work on animal monitoring and miniaturisation of electronics was also very interesting althoughv the issue of trying to convert data into information in an era of increasing technology was raised as a potential sticking point.


Reflections and conclusions

The Congress was successful in bringing together people working in rangelands across different political and ecological environments. There were a number of themes which best caught our imagination across the 5 days.

It was clear that investment in activities internationally are driven by the UN / IUCN & FAO within a development framework but it isn’t clear how this reflects on or incorporates Australian rangelands. A number of projects and outcomes were discussed but they don’t include Australia and in some cases North America. It would be interesting to see if there is opportunity for Australia to integrate with these projects, testing technologies or approaches for remote areas of the world in a safe (not war torn, good governance) environment could be one way. Another is that supporting and developing livelihoods in very small, very remote communities of Australia is also needed.

The rangelands supply a huge amount of ecosystem services globally however it is very difficult to capture the imagination of the masses to get effective and balanced policy for these regions. There is a worldwide need to consider how to convert the data and information collected into stories which can guide good policy for rangelands. The economic value of the ecosystem services was raised often, usually with the questions of how to get it recognised, how to calculate it and how to get those providing the service paid for their management. Does this need to be done directly like the carbon market in Australia or can it be done by integrating the value of the services through products which originate in the environment – for example, promoting buying grass-fed sustainable beef? It is time we talked about what the rangelands can do for you!

The Canadians sure know how to make you feel welcome and we thank them for their hospitality and ability to answer our very Australian questions about how they operate when there are metres of snow on the ground.

The next International Rangelands Congress will be held as a joint congress with the International Grassland congress in Nairobi, Kenya in October 2020.  The proposed theme for the congress is ‘Sustainable Use of Rangeland/Grassland resources for Improved Livelihoods’ and is expected to involve over 1200 participants.

Thank you to the Australian Rangelands Society for the support to attend the conference.

Photo 4. The skyline of Saskatoon.