Transcript of Rangeland Utilization Monitoring Video
Transcript of "Rangeland Utilization Monitoring - A Rancher's Perspective" Video
Some say that utilization monitoring takes too much time
and is too complicated. Well, that’s not necessarily true. In fact, it’s not
time consuming and it’s not complicated; it is simple, doesn’t take much time,
and is a critical element for proper management of your grazing land. That
translates into healthier, more productive rangeland and livestock and that is
worth the effort. Utilization measurements and documentation should be a part
of your monitoring program.
PAT O'NEILL, MONTANA RANCHER:
It helps you determine if a grazing system is working and if you are meeting
your goals, whether it be increasing diversity or decreasing the amount of bare
ground. Economically, in the long run, a proper grazing system should increase
your stocking rate, and thus increase the amount of forage and come right down
to your pocket in terms of cash flow.
Utilization or use is the proportion of current year’s forage production that is
consumed or destroyed by animals. Proper utilization or use is a degree of
utilization of current year’s growth that, if continued, will achieve management
objectives and maintain or improve the long-term productivity of the site. An
overall resource goal would be to improve soil health. Increasing soil organic
carbon in the soil profile will have a positive effect on range health. Organic
carbon in the soil helps develop a healthy population of soil microorganisms
that will help you evaluate how well the ecological processes are functioning.
Identifying specific goals and objectives is critical to maintaining or
improving grazing land productivity on the ranch. Attainable objectives to meet
soil health goals include less bare ground, increased litter cover, and plant
species with enough diversity to improve the productivity of the site with
taller, deep-rooted bunch grasses.
Utilization monitoring is a tool to help reach the overall goal for grazing
lands. How does utilization monitoring help you achieve these goals and
objectives by controlling the amount of defoliation of forage species in the
plant community by livestock? This can be easily accomplished by simply managing
the timing, intensity, and frequency of the defoliation. Research has shown that
50% or less defoliation by weight is necessary to promote and maintain healthy
root systems or root mass.
This also provides thermal protection of plant crowns and the soil surface
during periods of extreme temperature throughout the year and it maximizes
moisture retention. Leaving adequate green, leafy, photosynthetic tissue enables
proper root growth and provides energy for above ground leaf production. Also,
keeping adequate stubble height will improve drought reserves and may hasten
spring green-up the following growing season. This also provides herbaceous
biomass or litter which is critical to the carbon cycle that is necessary for
plant health and growth.
JON SIDDOWAY, RANGELAND MANAGEMENT SPECIALIST, NRCS:
In general, at the beginning of the growing season, grasses receive energy from
the crown of the plant near the soil surface for leaf development up to the
three-leaf stage. For further leaf and seed development during that growth
period, grasses are very dependent on the photosynthetic activity of those
existing leaves. So, stubble height after grazing becomes very important for the
ability of that plant to re-grow and produce new leaves.
What plants should be monitored? What is the species composition of the grazing
land on your ranch? Learn to identify the plants in your pastures. Are they
productive forage plants? Or, are they unpalatable, undesirable, and less
productive species? Are they decreasers, increasers, or invaders? Managing your
livestock to defoliate no more than 50% of the current year’s growth plants is
Well, the utilization helps you pinpoint exactly when you have that 50%
utilization target hit.
Proper utilization levels keep these plants vigorous and healthy and more
competitive in the plant community.
Monitoring helps you learn more about range plants and how those plants interact
with one another and with grazing animals.
With a planned change in grazing management, a good long-term monitoring program
will track whether you are on the right track to accomplish your goals. Where do
I monitor utilization in my pastures? Ranch goals and objectives will determine
where utilization monitoring will occur on the ranch in a given pasture.
Distance from water and topography are factors which will influence how
livestock will utilize different areas within a pasture. Knowing the location of
these areas will help you to locate the best monitoring sites for utilization.
Obtain the best information before making management decisions.
ROBERT KILIAN, RANGELAND MANAGEMENT SPECIALIST, NRCS:
Well, see, you can get a map of your whole ranch that looks like this.
It is not practical or possible to monitor utilization on every acre. Select
areas that are most representative of the pasture as a whole: not too close to
water or salting areas or gates, but not too far from water. Also, select areas
for sampling that you could expect improvement to occur in a relatively short
period of time. You may also want to monitor utilization in more critical
sections such as riparian areas or critical wildlife habitat. When you start
utilization monitoring on the ranch, some pastures may not be suited for
utilization monitoring. If lower successional species dominate the site, higher
successional species are absent, the pasture may not be suitable for monitoring.
An example would be a plant community dominated with blue gramma and club moss
and no bluebunch wheatgrass or green needlegrass in the stand. A utilization
cage is a common tool to use as an aid to determining utilization levels. A cage
is an enclosure designed to keep a small sample of ungrazed, representative
grass species that can then be compared to grazed plants.
Setting a cage up in each pasture and usually it doesn’t take much you’ve got to
go up and turn the water on and drag the mineral troughs up there, so it doesn’t
take much to throw a cage in and steel post that down when you’re scattering
Cages come in a variety of sizes and types. Many materials that can be used for
a cage are perhaps materials you may have on your shop and on your ranch: woven
wire, chain link, steel post; they can be used to make a cage. Cage locations
within a pasture must be moved from one year to the next. There is no permanent
transect needed to collect utilization data. Select one or two of the K forage
species in the cage that will be sampled in the pasture. Clip the plant or
plants at ground level keeping the plant intact. Then tie a string or rubber
band around the plant close to the base of the plant. Balance the entire plant
on one finger. The point on the plant from the base where it is balanced
represented 50% by weight. Measure this distance from the base; this is the
stubble height that grazed plants will be compared to determine use levels. This
can be easily measured using a yardstick, ruler or multi-tool.
I was surprised to learn just how much of the actual weight of the plant is at
the bottom, so 50 percent utilization is actually a lot shorter than what you
actually think in terms of overall plant height. Your early impression is that
if it’s a foot tall then six inches is 50 percent, but it’s a lot less than
For the final determination of utilization levels in a pasture after livestock
have been moved within three days, minimum of 30 measurements will be taken for
each key species. Try to cover the entire area of your representative site. This
means taking a sample every so many paces until you reach the desired number of
samples. Pick a landmark in the distance, walk in a straight line (and don’t
look at the ground) until you have reached the predetermined number of paces for
each sampling point and stop at the same number of paces for each measurement.
For example, our rancher decides that he can cover the entire representative
area and collect 30 samples if he takes a measurement every five paces. The
sample point will be taken at the front of your boot or at closest
representative plant near the front of your boot. If 30 samples are taken,
simply adding up the total stubble heights of all 30 plants and dividing by 30
will equal the average stubble height for that part of the pasture is one way.
After grazing occurs, going out and evaluating the site might take 20 minutes or
half an hour.
After completing the utilization transect, take a general look at the pasture as
a whole to get a good mental picture (or take a photograph) to help remember
later when planning for the next grazing season. Checking heights of a few grazed plants of the key species after animals have
been in the pasture for a short time only takes a few minutes. It helps you
evaluate how close you may be to your target stubble height for your key
species. This can be accomplished when doing normal herd checks. Tracking
utilization levels throughout the grazing period in a pasture may help ensure
that your target utilization is not exceeded.
Getting more involved monitoring utilization will help you get a better
picture of the use levels throughout your pasture. The first few years it may
pay dividends to take photos of grazed plants sampled and ungrazed plants from
the cage for comparison purposes. This can aid in calibrating your eye over time
and by visual aids when you confer with your local Range Conservationist.
Many grazing management plans initially use calendar dates to reflect numbers
of animals that can graze a pasture a certain amount of time. With a good
utilization monitoring plan, the rancher should be able to move animals based on
remaining stubble height of key forage grasses to meet utilization monitoring
objectives. This is especially critical during low precipitation or drought
years and livestock may be left in pastures too long if calendar dates are
strictly followed. Climatic shifts from dry to wet rain years will change
production on rangeland.
Let’s talk about grazing records. Utilization records that have been
completed should be incorporated into your yearly monitoring documentation. This
will compliment your grazing records: turn in, turn out dates, precipitation
information, weather events, insect problems, and other monitoring information
such as photos and cover measurements on permanent transects on the ranch. Put a
high priority on allowing yourself time to compile, organize and interpret the
monitoring information you gather. A good time to do this is during the winter
when you have time to sit down at a table and take a good look.
This video portrays a basic utilization monitoring method to assist ranchers
with the monitoring program.
WALTER BORNTRAGER, MONTANA RANCHER:
As a rancher you always monitor; it’s just it isn’t formal. And even as the
years go by the poorer memories a person gets, I just think it’s important to
get it on paper.
CARLA DELP, MONTANA RANCHER:
It’s nice to go back and look at the pictures and see how your ranch was doing
four or five years ago compared to what it’s doing now; some things might be
improved, some things maybe not. It’s a tool for us to go back and use.
JAMES EKLAND, MONTANA RANCHER:
We all want to learn from this and improve our grasslands and improve our range.
And that’s kind of what the whole thing is - to help us.
PAT O’NEILL, MONTANA RANCHER:
It’s helped us meet our goals.
Technical assistance is available from the Natural Resources Conservation
Service. For more information, go to www.mt.nrcs.usda.gov.