Someone once told me that monitoring rangelands was not rocket science, and while I have to agree, I also tend to wonder why more ranchers do not engage in this useful activity. Rangeland monitoring as defined is the orderly collection, analysis, and interpretation of information (data) used to make both short- and long-term management decisions. Okay, so now I understand why more ranchers do not partake of this activity–when defined it sounds like a whole lot of work and that you may need an advanced college degree to get it done. In all actuality rangeland monitoring can be as easy as taking a photo every couple of years. Yes, it can be that simple if you put a bit of thought into the process in the beginning.
The beginning. Everything needs to start with a solid foundation. You do not go build a house or barn just willy-nilly and so it is with rangeland monitoring. First you start with a goal–what are you going to monitor? Is the Canadian thistle patch in the back 40? Is it cheatgrass encroachment? Is it native grass health and reestablishment? There are many questions that you may want to answer through your monitoring project. I suggest you pick one or two to start. The next step is picking your sites. The number of sites you pick depends greatly on your goal, the number of pastures you have or want to look at, and the size of those pastures. For many, one site per pasture is enough, for others you may need two or three.
For example if you are trying to get a feel for how the native grass population is doing in response to your grazing plan, one monitoring point per pasture may be all you need, especially if you have fairly uniform plant composition across the pasture. On the other hand if you are wanting to look at grazing distribution impacts, you may need to have more than one location. Starting with a solid foundation and plan will be key to the ease of implementation.
The middle. Once you have set a goal and chosen your sites, you need to decide what type of monitoring you would like to do. In most instances a photo and some notes will be all you need. If you are trying to answer more complicated questions you may need to do a cover by life form transect or stubble height measurements. I encourage everyone to take a photograph no matter what. You know what they say–a picture is worth a thousand words. If you need to do monitoring on your public land allotment, visit with your agency representative and see what he or she recommends. Data from monitoring can come in handy during disputes with other ranchers, agency people, and other groups that may have issues with your grazing activities.
The end. The end is simple. Just get out and do your monitoring. Take the picture or run the transect. Taking the picture is the simplest since most of us carry cell phones with picture capabilities now days. Just remember to take that photo off your phone and save it to your computer or print it out and save it in a file folder.
All of us have the same number of hours in a day. What you do with those hours is key. If healthy landscapes and having data to back up your grazing decisions are not priorities for you, monitoring will not be a priority in your ranching business. Rangeland Monitoring defined can seem like a daunting task and a little bit like Rocket Science, but once broken down into management steps it becomes a very simple endeavor. There are many people out there than can help you with implementing a rangeland monitoring plan. Including people from your local university extension office, land management agency, conservation district, etc. I encourage each of you to look into a monitoring plan. It can be a simple as taking a photo while you ride through your pastures checking on fences or livestock.