Can grazing response of herbaceous plants be predicted from simple vegetative traits?
Range management is based on the response of plant species and communities to grazing intensity. The identification of easily measured plant functional traits that consistently predict grazing response in a wide spectrum of rangelands would be a major advance. Sets of species from temperate subhumid upland grasslands of Argentina and Israel, grazed by cattle, were analysed to find out whether: (i) plants with contrasting grazing responses differed in terms of easily measured vegetative and life-history traits; (ii) their grazing response could be predicted from those traits; (iii) these patterns differed between the two countries. Leaf mass, area, specific area (SLA) and toughness were measured on 83 Argentine and 19 Israeli species. Species were classified by grazing response (grazing-susceptible or grazing-resistant) and plant height (< or > 40 cm) as well as by life history (annual or perennial) and taxonomy (monocotyledon or dicotyledon). Similar plant traits were associated with a specific response to grazing in both Argentina and Israel. Grazing-resistant species were shorter in height, and had smaller, more tender, leaves, with higher SLA than grazing-susceptible species. Grazing resistance was associated with both avoidance traits (small height and leaf size) and tolerance traits (high SLA). Leaf toughness did not contribute to grazing resistance and may be related to selection for canopy dominance. Plant height was the best single predictor of grazing response, followed by leaf mass. The best prediction of species grazing response was achieved by combining plant height, life history and leaf mass. SLA was a comparatively poor predictor of grazing response. The ranges of plant traits, and some correlation patterns between them, differed markedly between species sets from Argentina and Israel. However, the significant relationships between plant traits and grazing response were maintained. The results of this exploratory study suggest that prediction of grazing responses on the basis of easily measured plant traits is feasible and consistent between similar grazing systems in different regions. The results challenge the precept that intense cattle grazing necessarily favours species with tough, unpalatable leaves.