Monitoring pastures assists sustainable management
"It's hard to know where you are going if you don't know where you've been."
This old saying has many applications and is easily applied to pasture and range management. One area of management in which it can be applied is with prescribed grazing. To properly manage pastures, variables must be monitored and some measured. In this article, we will discuss what prescribed grazing is and identify the variables critical to managing pastures.
Prescribed grazing is a managed balance between animal numbers, nutrition, economics, wildlife, weather, forage supply and many other factors. Prescribed grazing can be applied to one or many pastures as well as to one or many herds. The key is planning for a desired outcome. Success is more than just providing forage with appropriate levels of nutrition to grazing animals. Success is recognizing and managing adjustments that accompany management changes. Good managers recognize these changes and then take action. This process begins with monitoring and keeping good records.
Monitoring improves the manager's ability to make proper and timely decisions. Grazing lands are very complex. Any given pasture may be composed of several different soils, each with different potential plant communities. Each plant community supports its own mixture of grasses, forbs and woody species. The proportion and abundance of species change over time because of weather, seasons and how we manage these resources. The mix of species and their abundance within each plant community affect present and future production for livestock or wildlife, and the health of your ranch.
So what should you monitor and what records should you keep?
Precipitation records should be collected year-round to determine if changes in landscape cover are caused by weather patterns rather than management (e.g., stocking rate). Also, knowing whether or not you are short of rainfall will aid in making decisions that will benefit the land, such as reducing or removing livestock during drought.
Keeping grazing records to make management and forage unit decisions can be very useful. Grazing records track grazing period and recovery days, grazing cycles, and seasons of use. Records, including pasture identification, grazeable acres in each pasture, number of days grazed during each grazing event, number of head or animal units grazing, average weight per head or animal unit, and recovery period, should be captured.
Record forage heights before and after a grazing event. More accurate estimates can be made by using caged grazing exclosures. This method excludes grazing animals from a small representative area so that vegetation changes outside the exclosure can be compared to changes inside the cage.
A good way to capture vegetation shift and trends is with photographs. Take pictures at permanent key grazing sites for comparison over time to determine trends. The number of areas selected depends on the ranch size and number of unique sites. Photos should consist of close-ups of specific plots as well as a landscape photo that includes landmarks so the photo angle can be repeated. Photographs should be taken at least once a year at the same time of year; preferably in the fall. Shoot more often if you want to monitor changes more closely. Using the photos in combination with other monitoring methods can help the manager better understand landscape changes.
Managers must monitor and document changes to ensure that management is not causing damage to soil and plant communities, and to evaluate whether or not past actions are producing desired results. Land stewards who are dedicated to improving the quality of their pastures will ultimately see results in profitability, with economic and environmental changes that benefit the sustainability of their business.