Developing sustainable ranch management systems requires integrated research that examines interrelations among ecological and economic factors. In south central Florida, where phosphorus (P) loading is an overriding environmental concern, we established an interdisciplinary experiment to address the effects of cattle stocking density and pasture type on P loading and other ecological and economic factors in subtropical Florida ranchlands through a partnership including ecologists, agricultural faculty, agency personnel, and producers. Here we present an overview of all project components detailed in 3 accompanying papers in this issue of Rangeland Ecology & Management. We describe the experimental design, which included 2 replicates of 4 different cattle stocking density treatments (control, low, middle, and high [0, 15, 20, and 35 cow–calf pairs per pasture]) maintained on 8 improved summer pastures (∼ 20 ha each), and 8 seminative winter pastures (∼ 32 ha each) from 1998 to 2003. Stocking densities did not significantly affect P loads and concentrations in surface runoff, soil chemistry, or soil nematode communities, but did affect cattle production and economic performance. Cattle production was greater at the high than at the middle or low stocking density; economic performance declined significantly with decreasing stocking density (break-even was $1.89·kg−1 for high and $2.66·kg−1 for low density). Pasture type significantly affected environmental factors; average P runoff from improved summer pastures (1.71 kg P·ha−1·y−1) was much greater than from seminative winter pastures (0.25 kg P·ha−1·y−1), most likely because of past P fertilizer use in improved pastures. We integrate results from all the papers within the context of a conceptual model and a P budget, and emphasize that management practices targeted at specific environmental factors on beef cattle ranches, such as nutrient loading, must include consideration of economic impacts and broader ecosystem implications.
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Vol. 60 • No. 1