by Tracy Brewer, Research Assistant Professor of Range Science, Joe Skeen Institute for Rangeland Restoration, Dept. of Animal and Range Sciences, Montana State University
"...doesn’t it also make sense to keep track of the performance, health, vigor and production of the forage that nourishes your animals?"
Take a moment to ponder this: How much time do you allocate to evaluating your livestock? What I mean by to “evaluate” is to ride or drive through them to look at them. When you look at your livestock and evaluate them, what are you looking for: Performance? Health? Vigor? Production compared to last year or the past five years?
In order to produce a healthy calf or lamb crop, you must take the time to keep track of the herd or flock’s performance, health, etc. For the same reason, doesn’t it also make sense to keep track of the performance, health, vigor and production of the forage that nourishes your animals? This can be achieved through a series of simple rangeland monitoring techniques that will help keep you in tune with your forage resources and I can guarantee you won’t have to spend as much time with your grass as you do with your animals.
Rangeland monitoring can be achieved through several methods that vary in degree of technicality. However, there are accurate methods to measure the effects of livestock grazing on rangeland that produce repeatable results and can be done relatively quickly. It is important to choose monitoring techniques that are sensitive to changes that may occur on your livestock operation. Your local MSU Extension agent or a specialist on the MSU campus can provide you with information about these techniques.
These are things to consider when planning a monitoring program
Ranch Goals: Every ranch has goals – whether they are written on paper or are lodged in the mind of the person in charge. Without monitoring, it is extremely difficult to determine whether short- and long-term goals are being met and whether current management approaches are leading toward or away from ranch goals.
Reasons for Monitoring: In addition to evaluating progress toward short- and long-term ranch goals, there are other reasons why rangeland monitoring is a good idea. Monitoring livestock performance is not adequate for evaluating rangeland health because, in general, animal performance will begin to decline some time after forage resources have been degraded. Because animals have the ability to compensate by changing their feeding habits to include less desirable species, a reduction in rangeland health does not become immediately evident and it is often heavily degraded by the time reduced animal performance is noticed. Rangeland monitoring information gives you the flexibility to deter potential problems before they exist and to adjust your management accordingly for the future. It is an excellent way to become more familiar with your ranch, the forage resources present on it, and its maximum potential. Greater familiarity may lead to management decisions that can improve the efficiency of your production system.
Things to Monitor: The specific items you choose to monitor depend largely on ranch goals. Examples of items frequently monitored on rangeland include: grass use (either percent utilization or residual stubble height), livestock distribution patterns, problem areas, sensitive areas (also known as “critical areas”), and streambank disturbance. Other items frequently monitored include: weather data, insect infestations, fire, wildlife densities, management changes and livestock turn-in/turn-off dates. Key components to a monitoring program include: 1) making observations, 2) gathering data, and 3) keeping records. A successful program requires all three.
Other Considerations: Rangeland monitoring is a management technique that should be tailored to each individual ranch situation, based on existing goals. Ultimately, it should be crafted to fit the ranch’s environmental, financial and human resources. It does not require large amounts of time, may be done successfully only once per year and can be as simple or complex as you like. It can be a great family activity, an intergenerational effort, and an excellent way to get people out on the ground together.
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