Nitrogen (N) availability can strongly influence forage quality and the capacity for semiarid rangelands to respond to increasing atmospheric CO2. Although many pathways of nitrogen input and loss from rangelands have been carefully quantified, cattle-mediated N losses are often poorly understood. We used measurements of cattle N consumption rate, weight gains, and spatial distribution in shortgrass rangeland of northeastern Colorado to evaluate the influence of cattle on rangeland N balance. Specifically, we estimated annual rates of N loss via cattle weight gains and spatial redistribution of N into pasture corners and areas near water tanks, and used previous studies to calculate ammonia volatilization from urine patches. Using measurements of plant biomass and N content inside and outside grazing cages over 13 yr, we estimate that cattle stocked at 0.65 animal unit months (AUM) · ha−1 consumed 3.34 kg N · ha−1 · yr−1. Using an independent animal-based method, we estimate that cattle consumed 3.58 kg N · ha−1 · yr−1 for the same stocking rate and years. A global positioning system tracking study revealed that cattle spent an average of 27% of their time in pasture corners or adjacent to water tanks, even though these areas represented only 2.5% of pasture area. Based on these measurements, we estimate that cattle stocked at 0.65 AUM · ha−1 during the summer can remove 0.60 kg N · ha−1 in cattle biomass gain and spatially redistribute 0.73 kg N · ha−1 to areas near corners and water tanks. An additional 0.17 kg N · ha−1 can be lost as NH3 volatilization from urine patches. Cumulatively, these cattle-mediated pathways (1.50 kg N · ha−1) may explain the imbalance between current estimates of atmospheric inputs and trace gas losses. While NOx emission remains the largest pathway of N loss, spatial N redistribution by cattle and N removed in cattle biomass are the second and third largest losses, respectively. Management of cattle-mediated N fluxes should be recognized as one means to influence long-term sustainability of semiarid rangelands.
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