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The Rangeland Planning Process

The Rangeland Planning Process

by Toni M. Flax, Rangeland Management Specialist
Natural Resources Conservation Service
Stockton, Kansas

While signing up your rangeland for the U.S. Department of Agriculture 2008 Farm Bill program the district conservationist informs you that a grazing plan will be developed that includes stocking rates for your contract. So you ask, “What does that mean for my management and where in the world do those numbers come from?”

To start with, an aerial map will be provided of all fields that you have included on the application. This map will include an inventory of items in your field, such as all fences, water, corrals, and others. A range-site map will also be made. A range site is a combination of soil types that will support a certain plant community. These plant communities are different from each other in the plant species and total pounds of forage they can produce. There can be several range sites in each field. A range conservationist or a knowledgeable field office person will take the map to the field and do a species composition inventory. This is called a benchmark inventory and can be done visually or by a line transect. An inventory will be done on all range sites. It will then be compared to range site descriptions that give climax plant communities (what was there before European settlement) to determine range condition. Most rangeland in central and western Kansas is in fair or good condition. Meaning that in fair condition 26-50 percent of the climax plant community exists. This condition score indicates a value or an animal unit month (AUM) amount per acre that the range site can support. An AUM is simply the amount of forage that is required to sustain a 1000 pound cow for one month. In other words, how much forage is available to graze. Multiplying the value by the acres of the range sites and adding all range sites in that field together gives us the total AUM’s that are available in the field.

At the time of application you should also have been asked about the type and size of livestock you plan to graze as well as the length of time you are going to have them in those fields. These answers along with the total AUM’s are what are needed to determine stocking rates. Alternatives you are given will be based on variations such as less head for the whole grazing season (6 months) or more head for a shorter grazing season (3 months). One thing to remember is that even though the numbers may not be what you are used to or what you expected, they are based on available forage determined by an inventory and what it is going to take to make improvements in range condition.

Also keep in mind that these plans are based on a benchmark inventory and do evolve and change over time. This is why monitoring tools such as grazing cages are important and required in contracts. These cages are to be placed around the key grazing species that is determined during the inventory process. These species are the ones to be managed for and improved. Therefore, no more than 50 percent of the targeted plants growth can be taken during the growing season. If there is a situation where the numbers of planned livestock have not used the 50 percent, then there may be a possibility of increasing the number of animals you can graze if growing conditions allow for increased forage production. You may also need to remove livestock if weather conditions are not favorable, and it is found that more than 50 percent of the plants growth will be taken by the end of the grazing season.

There is a science and an art to grazing rangeland and improving it. Through Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) programs, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP), the local field office can help provide the science and tools to assist you with improving the art of rangeland management.

For more information about range management, please contact your local NRCS office or conservation district office located at your local county USDA Service Center. To learn more about NRCS, visit the Kansas NRCS Web site at www.ks.nrcs.usda.gov.

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