In the management of a ranch, beef producers keep records on many things. Annual vaccinations, breeding and calving dates, birth weights, EPDs, average daily gains and pounds of calf weaned per cow are just a few examples of the types of things monitored.
What is not so prominently monitored is the land itself, which is surprising to me given the fact that ranch profitability is directly related to ecological health of the land. Ranchers are first and foremost in the solar energy business and without healthy soil, plant and animal communities economic health suffers.
Monitoring land allows managers to assure themselves and others that their management practices are having acceptable effects on rangeland ecosystems. It is more important now than ever that ranchers monitor their land, considering ongoing drought, increased scrutiny of grazing practices by environmentalists and potential listing of many endangered species like sage grouse on public grazing lands.
With repeated observations over time in a properly designed monitoring system, land managers can separate out natural landscape trends from those that are a direct result of management decisions. In addition, the results from these observations can add credibility to the management decisions producers make, which will be vital if there is a potential for loss of grazing leases on public lands.
Understanding how management decisions are actually affecting the landscape allows producers to be better decision makers. It allows you to change from decisions that have negative effects and find methods that have positive effects. This in turn leads to better animal performance, improved rangeland health and a better bottom line. Who wouldn’t want that?
A monitoring program can start with simple things such as tracking precipitation at multiple locations across the ranch and keeping good grazing records. Using soil surveys and visually estimating forage production can also assist land managers in making better decisions.
To improve accuracy, forage production can be calculated by clipping forage samples to determine the pounds of forage produced per acre. This is done by taking multiple clippings in various locations throughout a pasture and then weighing the samples both wet and dry. With the dry-matter percentage calculated it is possible to determine total pounds of forage produced per acre. An extension publication on this topic from Montana State University can be found here.
Advanced monitoring tactics will include setting up permanent monitoring stations throughout your land base. These stations will have permanent transects laid out and/or contain one or more photo points. In the example photos you can see how the same photo point with transect can be compared at two different time periods -- 2007 versus 2011.
Land management should optimize the effectiveness of each of the four key ecosystem processes – nutrient cycling, water cycling, biotic state and energy flow. Like the old adage says … you cannot manage what you do not measure. Not paying attention to your land is like not checking the oil in your vehicle. It just doesn’t make sense and it leads to bad things down the road.
I encourage you to get monitoring on your ranch if you have not already done so. You can start simple with rain gauges and grazing records. For help with the technical details contact your local agent with NRCS, the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, or university extension. You can also consider contacting one of several private-sector companies specializing in rangeland monitoring.
No matter who you contact, though, the important thing is to start paying attention to the land. Like an old timer once said, "You will always make more money putting poor animals on good pasture…than you will putting good animals on poor pasture."
Being more observant, keeping good records and making better decisions because of it will ensure that both your ranch’s land base and the ranching industry as a whole are sustainable for generations to come.