Rangeland Monitoring: Piece of Cake

I was offering a rangeland monitoring class this week but because of the wonderful rain it was canceled.  Rangeland monitoring is best done as a hands on activity.  Yes, I was disappointed, but I am not one to complain about the rain.  While I was working on rescheduling this class I was visiting with a livestock producer who told me that rangeland monitoring was just more paperwork so learning about range monitoring wasn’t in the plan.  As you can imagine, since I am a range nerd and all, this made my hackles rise up just a bit and I feel like addressing the comment, so you get another blog post!  I’d say it was a win-win!

The Red Desert Ranch in Wyoming (Photo by Randy C. Bunney; CC 3.0)

The Red Desert Ranch in Wyoming (Photo by Randy C. Bunney; CC 3.0)

 

It has been my observation that most livestock producers do a great job at keeping livestock performance and tax records; however many do not actually monitor the most important resource on the property–the vegetation–which supports the ranch enterprises.  Typically when producers visit with me and complain about having more paperwork, I give them a simple answer:  Plants are the primary producers on your ranch–they convert solar energy which is free, into usable energy that fuels your livestock, why would you not want to ensure their health?  Answers to this question vary, but the answer is not that important.  What is important is understanding how rangeland health can affect your overall business.

The Grant-Kohrs Ranch near Dear Lodge, Montana (Photo National Park Service).

The Grant-Kohrs Ranch near Dear Lodge, Montana (Photo by: National Park Service).

 

Tracking animal performance, as I have mentioned, is something most producers willingly do, but did you know that it can take several years for animal performance to show a decline in rangeland condition?  This is because animals are smart and they will compensate by selecting less preferred but equally as nutritious plants.  Also years with above average precipitation will typically show an increase in animal performance and can mask the decline in forage condition.  By the time animal performance shows a decline due to resource decline, pastures may have been degraded to the point where full recovery may take years and may be very expensive.

The Gifford Ranch in Capitol Reef National Park in Utah (Photo: National Park Service)

The Gifford Ranch in Capitol Reef National Park in Utah (Photo by: National Park Service)

 

In my observance range monitoring is only as time consuming as you make it and can be fairly easy if approached in the right way.  There are some instances where extensive monitoring may be necessary but in most cases the simple approach can provide enough indication of rangeland condition to help you make appropriate grazing decisions.  Most rangeland monitoring records can be kept in your National Beef Cattleman’s Association Redbook or equivalent, where you keep your livestock records.  They can be kept on your calendar where you keep your rotational grazing schedule.  They can even be kept on your smart phone.  Bottom line: where ever is easiest for you to keep your livestock records is a perfect place to keep basic rangeland monitoring records.

Blue skies over a ranch in Canada (Photo: Public Domain)

Blue skies over a ranch in Canada (Photo: Public Domain)

 

Let’s look at the simple approach. I believe there are 4 different types of records you need to keep for simple rangeland monitoring that can help you make decisions and track rangeland condition.

  1. Take photos while checking the fence lines.  Landscape photos that show forage growth, taken annually can be really helpful when referring to the condition of each pasture.  Almost everyone has a camera phone these days–there are no excuses.
  2. Make a list of plants found in each pasture annually–this gives you the ability to know if an invader species are present and in what amounts.  This is easy to do when checking livestock or water sources.  You don’t have to even know the name of the plant.  You can call it whatever you want, just so you know what it is and how to recognize it, especially the bad ones.
  3. Maintain precipitation records.  This can help you understand how the timing and amount of precipitation can affect forage growth.
  4. Keep stocking rate and grazing duration records for each pasture.  They can help you determine where overgrazing may be occurring or where grazing may be affecting the plant types found in that pasture.
Horses graze on a South Dakota Ranch (Photo: Public Domain)

Horses graze on a South Dakota Ranch (Photo: Public Domain)

 

There you have it! Four easy steps to a range monitoring program.  Again some instances may require more in-depth monitoring, especially if you want to answer specific questions.  Be sure to contact your local Extension Office if this is the case.  They will likely be more than happy to help you out.  So guess what, the “too much paperwork” or “too little time” excuses may not work for you anymore.  Rangeland monitoring typically takes no more time than checking a fence or water source, but will provide you with information on the health of one of the most important resources on your ranch–the vegetation.

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The Weary Barn

The Weary Barn
The grayed out old barn
Rests its weary legs
On my grandpa’s farm
Inside, shelves run wall to wall
Filled will nails, twine, and ear tags
Pens for calves born in fall
Line up side by side
Cobwebs filled with dust and flies
Hang in corners-spiders full of pride
Bales of hay with orange twine ties
Are stacked up to the beams
Rope hangs down upon which we swing
100 years of smells jump out, or so it seems
A cowbell that once did ring
Riding upon a Holstein cow
Now rests upon a post
Next to the small side door sits the plow
This is the one picture I love the most
The grayed out old barn
That rests its weary legs
Upon my grandpa’s farm

The grayed out old barn (Photo: Public Domain)

The grayed out old barn (Photo: Public Domain)

Every one of us can remember and maybe even visit a place that reminds us of the past.  The farming and ranching industries are steeped in history and while there are many things that change, there are usually a few things that remain the same year after year.  As members of production agriculture we take pride in our work and traditions.  However while some traditions are great and allow us to teach the next generation a good work ethic and history, farmers and ranchers should not forget the importance of evaluating and changing methods to increase productivity, profitability, and efficiency, as well as protect rangeland and livestock health.  One of these changes may be switching to year-long grazing rather than season long livestock grazing.

Sustainable rangeland forage is dependent on how we utilize our grazing livestock. (Photo by Ashley Garrelts).

Sustainable rangeland forage is dependent on how we utilize our grazing livestock. (Photo by Ashley Garrelts).

 

When we hear the term grazing season we typically think of a time when the forage is actively growing, which works great for producers who are seasonal in nature, such as stocker operators. However, for a cow-calf or ewe-lamb producer, thinking this way can be limiting. Planning for grazing only during the growing season limits the grazing options that a producer has available for the rest of the year. Range livestock managers should not limit their thinking to a season or period in time but rather expand their planning for multiple seasons and year-round grazing management.

Cows graze through out the winter on this pasture. (Photo by: Ian Mitchell [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Cows graze throughout the winter on this pasture. (Photo by: Ian Mitchell [CC BY-SA 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons)

 

To be a successful grazing manager, plans must be tied to stocking rate and season of use. Stocking rate is the number of animals grazing an area of land for a period of time. Cow-calf and ewe-lamb producers should think of this time as a full year. In Wyoming, where I live and work, the majority of our highest producing grasses are cool season in nature. This means they grow and produce seed in the cool spring and typically have reached peak standing crop in late June. Animal performance as we know is linked to forage availability and quality. Matching the animal’s nutritional needs to the nutritional availability provided by the forage is key in developing a year round grazing management strategy.  We also know that an animal’s highest nutritional requirements are just after giving birth during peak lactation.  So changing calving or lambing season to a time when forage is at its most nutritious is key to developing a year-long grazing strategy.

Late spring or early summer born lambs help match the animal's nutritional needs to that provided by the forage. (Photo: NRCS).

Late spring or early summer born lambs help match the animal’s nutritional needs to that provided by the forage. (Photo: NRCS).

For long-term sustainability of both the forage and livestock, stocking rates should be based on a time period of a year and also the amount of forage the land can produce in a normal rainfall year. But what is normal? Normal is hard to define with respect to rainfall because the average, which is what we usually think of as normal, can be skewed by a few really wet years. However figuring out what is normal should be easy if you keep track of yearly moisture or access it through a web based program.  (For help with this, contact your local Extension Office).  Conservative stocking rates, combined with a rotational grazing plan presents a manager with unique opportunities to manage the grass on his or her property. Rotational grazing can help you manage the intensity and duration of a grazing event, giving pastures time to rest and recover. It will allow you to stock pile forage for use in dryer years and for your fall and winter grazing events. Preparation and planning are key to making year-long grazing successful. Managers typically need to be thinking one or two seasons ahead and know the yearly flow of grass production on their property.

Timing and amount of precipitation is key in determining peak standing forage and thus stocking rates. (Photo by Ashley Garrelts).

Timing and amount of precipitation is key in determining peak standing forage and thus stocking rates. (Photo by Ashley Garrelts).

Changes on the farm and ranch may be necessary based on who does the work, the desire to be sustainable, and also to maintain profitability. It is likely most of us no longer keep a Holstein cow around anymore and that is why her bell sits on a shelf in the barn.  Somewhere along the line we made the decision to make that change, it may be time to look at other areas of the operation and evaluate the current way of doing things.  Just remember, spring is a time for new beginnings but also a time to look back and teach traditions to the younger generation.

"Hey, where did everyone go?" (Photo by NRCS).

“Hey, where did everyone go?” (Photo by NRCS).

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