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Ecología austral

versión On-line ISSN 1667-782X


GOLLUSCIO, Rodolfo. Carrying capacity of animal production systems: theoretical framework and practical applications. Ecol. austral [online]. 2009, vol.19, n.3, pp.215-232. ISSN 1667-782X.

This article is conceived as a didactic aid to use in graduate and post-graduate courses of Ecology and Grassland Science. It aims to illustrate the concept of carrying capacity when applied to animal production systems, and also the difficulties involved in its calculus. The concept of carrying capacity derives from the classical logistic model of population growth, and is defined as the maximum density a population can attain in one habitat. However, that model assumes that (1) the environment is invariable in time and space, (2) all the individuals of the depredators or parasites. Taking into account that these three assumptions are not fulfilled in animal production systems, and that human intervention alters ecosystem carrying capacity, the concept of carrying capacity of animal production systems differs from that of the logistic model. The carrying capacity of animal production systems has been defined as "the maximum animal density that can be maintained in one area under a certain production level without deteriorate the resource". The most adequate conceptual framework to understand the factors determining the carrying capacity of animal production systems is the model of energy flux. It suggests that domestic herbivores may consume only a proportion of Aboveground Net Primary Production, known as Harvest Index, to make a sustainable use of rangeland ecosystems. There not exist, until now, an universally accepted methodology to estimate the carrying capacity of animal production systems because of: (1) the lack of reliable models to predict Harvest Index in sites differing in environmental conditions or vegetation structure, or in different years or seasons, (2) the vast array of factors determining carrying capacity, including those directly linked to forage availability (as precipitation, fertility, soil texture, etc.) as good as those environmental factors unlinked to forage availability (as water availability, climatic risks, predators, etc.) and those factors linked to range management (as grazing system), and (3) the interactions among these factors and the producer decisions, which reflect the objectives the producer fix to its business and the levels of economic risk he assumes. As a consequence, when defining the carrying capacity of an animal production system, several precautions must be taken: a careful selection of the best method for each objective and region, a conservative attitude, a continuous monitoring of the status of vegetation and individual animal production parameters (no calculus negatively affecting any of those parameters can be considered as sustainable), and a flexible attitude allowing to modify the stocking density in order to promote regenerative processes or prevent transitions to more degraded states.

Palabras clave : Sustainable use; Energy flux; Population dynamics; Grazing; Harvest index.

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