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Cattle foraging habits shape vegetation patterns of alluvial year-round grazing systems

Abstract

Year-round grazing with robust cattle is increasingly used as a near-natural tool for the restoration of structurally diverse grassland ecosystems in Western and Central Europe. The aim of this study was to evaluate the general success of year-round grazing and to analyze the interplay between emerging vegetation structures, grazing patterns and abiotic environmental conditions. In summer 2010 vegetation composition, aboveground biomass and soil properties were sampled at 44 quadrats of 4 × 4 m2 within two year-round grazed floodplain sites in Northwestern Germany. For plot selection, we predefined structural vegetation types and later statistically determined indicative plant species for each structural type. Our results showed that year-round grazing resulted in the successful creation of eutrophic grassland communities on former agricultural land after 15 years. Soil parameters like phosphorous and potassium concentration and the flooding duration did not or only slightly differ between different structure types. In summer, cattle preferably fed at short-growing patches which were of better digestible biomass than taller patches. Hence, our data clearly demonstrate a positive feedback between grazing intensity and fodder quality leading to a patchy vegetation structure of intensively grazed swards and less frequented areas dominated by high-growing grasses and tall forbs, almost independently from primary differences in soil parameters and other site factors such as flooding duration. The remarkable structural and floristic diversity of year-round grazing systems clearly is a result of these spatially contrasting feeding patterns.

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Acknowledgments

The authors are grateful to Luise Hauswirth and Margret Bunzel-Drüke (both ABU Soest e.V.) for the possibility to carry out this research, and for help in setting up the experiment. Furthermore, the authors thank the Environmental Department of the District Government of Arnsberg and the ABU Soest e.V. for the provision of background data about the study area. Two anonymous reviewers provided very useful comments that significantly improved the quality of this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Kristin Gilhaus.

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Gilhaus, K., Stelzner, F. & Hölzel, N. Cattle foraging habits shape vegetation patterns of alluvial year-round grazing systems. Plant Ecol 215, 169–179 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11258-013-0287-6

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Keywords

  • Floodplain restoration
  • Fodder quality
  • Grassland restoration
  • Nature development projects
  • Plant diversity
  • Vegetation structures