Range Improvements

The whir of a windmill can be heard over the rustling of dried grasses in the wind.  Red and white Hereford cattle trail along, moseying up a gradual incline to reach the cool, blue water being pumped into a large round tank.  A few scatter off to graze on the summer browned grass and search for a safe place to rest.  Others walk toward the new fence that crisscross the prairie.  The once young frisky calves graze with their mothers, their sleek coats gleam in the sun.  Off in the distance on the other side of the pasture a pickup truck bounces across the landscape.  It pulls a trailer carrying a brand new tire-tank.  Soon this area will have its own water source and hopefully livestock distribution will be improved.

A windmill pumps water for livestock and wildlife out on the open prairie (Photo: NRCS).

A windmill pumps water for livestock and wildlife out on the open prairie (Photo: NRCS).

 

Water developments like a new water tank are known as structural range improvements.  Other structural improvements include the construction of facilities or fencing.  Range improvements can also be non structural, and include such things a prescribed burns or range seedings.

If you are thinking of implementing a range improvement it is best to do a cost/benefit analysis. A cost/benefit analysis is a simple technique that you can use for any type of decision whether financial or not. There are two purposes for doing an analysis. 1) To see if a range improvement is a sound investment and 2) to provide a basis for comparing different types range improvements.

Fencing is a type of structural range improvement (Photo: NRCS).

Fencing is a type of structural range improvement (Photo: NRCS).

 

There are typically three costs associated with range improvements.  The actual cost of the project; the cost of deferring management until the project if finished—sometimes called the feed gap in seeding and prescribed burn projects; and the cost of extra stock once the range improvement is finished. Depending on which range improvement you are implementing the costs can vary greatly but typically fall under one of these three categories.

Benefits of range improvements may include increased livestock carrying capacity, improved forage production, improved wildlife habitat, reduced soil erosion, enhanced land value, increased recreation opportunities, or improved water quality. All these items have the ability to increase a ranching operation’s bottom line; however when doing a cost/benefit analysis we typically look at increased livestock carrying capacity and the associated increased income from being able to sell more calves. However, it is important to think through the entire set of benefits that you hope to gain from a range improvement and try to estimate a dollar amount that can offset the cost amount for a certain project.

Increased carrying capacity is one of the most common benefit of range improvements (Photo: NRCS).

Increased carrying capacity is one of the most common benefit of range improvements (Photo: NRCS).

 

For example improving wildlife habitat can increase the number of big game animals in the area and thus you may be able increase hunting fees if you allow hunting on your privately owned property.  When putting in range improvements you can enhance the land value of your property and thus measure how much money you could potentially receive if you put your property up for sale or lease.

Enhanced or improved wildlife habitat is another benefit of range improvements (Photo: NRCS).

Enhanced or improved wildlife habitat is another benefit of range improvements (Photo: NRCS).

 

Range improvements can have large impacts on a ranching operation’s ability to produce forage for livestock or wildlife.  It is important to understand all the costs and benefits to a project before implementation.  Typically your local Extension Office can help you with understanding a cost/benefit analysis as  well as a pay off schedule–or how long it would take for the initial cost of a project to start generating income for your operation.

That same herd of Hereford cattle are gathered around a new tire tank, slurping the cool fresh water that has been pumped by the quietness of a solar panel.  As the drink their fill they wander off to graze the tall native grasses, that haven’t been grazed  as heavily or at all.  The ranchers stand near by next to his pickup truck and marvels at the pleasantness and sweet small of fall in the air.

A few Hereford cattle graze contently on summer browned grass (Photo: USDA-ARS).

A few Hereford cattle graze contentedly on summer browned grass (Photo: USDA-ARS).

 

For instructions on installing a tire tank–check out this video by University of Wyoming Extension Educator Dallas Mount.

 

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Rangeland Monitoring–Simple Endeavor or Rocket Science

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.

Rangeland monitoring can be as easy as taking a photograph. (Photo by Ashley Garrelts).

Rangeland monitoring can be as easy as taking a photograph. (Photo by Ashley Garrelts).

 

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.

Planning during the beginning stages will ensure a proper foundation for a rangeland monitoring project. (Photo by NRCS).

Planning during the beginning stages will ensure a proper foundation for a rangeland monitoring project. (Photo by NRCS).

 

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.

Knowing your goal and pasture size will help you determine the number of monitoring sites needed. (Photo: University of New Mexico Extension).

Knowing your goal and pasture size will help you determine the number of monitoring sites needed. (Photo: University of New Mexico Extension).

 

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.

Taking a photo looking down onto the rangeland can show how plant composition can change over time in response to grazing, climate, and other factors. (Photo by:  Ashley Garrelts).

Taking a photo looking down onto the rangeland can show how plant composition can change over time in response to grazing, climate, and other factors. (Photo by: Ashley Garrelts).

 

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.

Monitoring can help you see what is happening on your rangelands over time.  (Photo by: Ashley Garrelts).

Monitoring can help you see what is happening on your rangelands over time. (Photo by: Ashley Garrelts).

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