Skip Navigation

Transcript of Rangeland Trend Monitoring Video


Trend monitoring is a process allowing you to develop a long-term program for your ranch. Rangeland trend monitoring helps you see the direction of change on your ranchland over a long period of time. It allows you to identify any changes that involve plant succession and soil properties. This trend can identify changes over a long period that are upward, downward or just not apparent, static. .

If there is anything bad going on you want to, you want to stop it and turn it around and make it right.

Let's take a closer look at all three:

Upward trend is a positive change that might involve decrease in the amount of bare ground. It might be seen in a gradual increase of desirable forage plant density or higher production. An upward trend might also appear with a decrease in noxious and invasive weeds, an increase in litter cover, or a general enhancement of plant vigor. If you see changes like these occurring on your rangeland the trend is upward.

A downward trend is adverse such as an increase in bare ground, a decrease in desirable forage plants indicated by lower production and density, an increase of noxious and invasive plants, less litter cover between plants or less plant growth vigor. If you see changes like these occurring on your rangeland you would conclude the trend on that land is a downward trend.

Regarding a static trend, you cannot see or document either a positive or an adverse change in the plant community or on the soil surface.

So what we are discussing is monitoring of your rangeland to evaluate changes in range condition and progress toward meeting a management goal over an extended period of time.  Monitoring of long-term trend helps you document the ecological status of an area of land and how it changes over time; and helps you determine how you are progressing toward meeting specific pre-determined goals for your ranch.

It's just these things here, this data management is what it's all about. You know it's hard to know where you're going if you don't know where you've been. So the more records you have, the more documentation you have, the more opportunity you have to succeed.

The management plan for your ranch is the basis for your monitoring plan. Maintaining a good ranching operation imposes many demands that require keeping good up-to-date records including finances, herd genetics, herd health, animal production statistics, and more. The long-term monitoring of the health and productivity of your rangeland and introduced pastures is often neglected, despite the fact range health and productivity can and does affect herd health and animal productivity.

In my view we are really in the grass business. If we don't take care of this resource and if we don't improve this resource over time we're not going to be in business. And so I think time is very well spent, at least as well spent, keeping track of what is going on on the range as it is keeping detailed records on your cow herd.

An effective method of addressing this need is to monitor the effects of grazing management and rangeland health by adding trend monitoring to the normal operation of your ranch.

We're using water cycle, mineral cycle, energy flow and level of succession as our monitoring basics. And so we look at each one of those things and if any of those is out of whack, then we know, which we learned by our monitoring, then we know that we need to make changes.

There are a number of reasons trend monitoring is important. To identify a few: it allows you to evaluate the return on your investment of any extra time and labor to move animals in a new, planned grazing strategy. And tracking your investments in conservation practices such as new fencing, water developments, range or pasture seeding will help create a clearer picture of your progress. For example, on Chase Hibbard's ranch a change was made to a more grass-oriented management plan.

We switched our calving date from February to June and began running yearlings. Uh, the main objective of which was to be able to winter those cows on little or no hay. Um, we went to the lower elevations on the ranch and, uh, subdivided them with a limited amount of permanent three-wire electric, and are further subdividing with portable one-strand electric polywire; ah, grazing for short duration, putting cows together in a large mob.

Hibbard says that evolved into keeping that mob together for the summer.

So obviously we're, we're starting to do things quite differently. We felt it was very necessary to have an early warning system. Taking this step was a big move.

Trend monitoring can help you resolve resource concerns and meet management goals including less bare ground, more productive perennial forage for livestock, habitat for wildlife, ecological process improvements and soil and rangeland health changes, improved herd health, improved drought resistance and weed resistance on your range. All addressing goals that improve long-term profitability and sustainability for your operation.

I'm a firm believer in trend monitoring. Trend, I like upwards trends. I like my, my decreaser grasses to be there and healthy. And you find out what works. Pasture rotation systems work. That really helps you.

Now let's discuss methods you can use to easily establish a long-term monitoring program for your ranch. It may help to revisit the management goals you've established for your ranch, with an eye toward any changes that need to occur to meet your feasible and practical goals including facilitating practices and practical goals. Develop a solid plan to meet those goals. Working with a rangeland professional can be beneficial to assist with this planning effort.

To develop goals for your plan remember this word: smart. Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Results-Oriented and Timely goals: smart.

Permanent long-term monitoring transects will be set up at strategic locations on the ranch to help assess progress toward meeting specific manageable goals. Locations may include, but not be limited to the dominant soils or ecological sites on your ranch; critical areas such as riparian communities; noxious or poisonous weed problem areas; areas of low productivity or areas with a decline in productivity seen over a period of time. These transect sites will reflect changes that are occurring over a much larger area within a specific pasture or within two or more adjoining pastures that are being grazed by one herd.

Additional sites may be monitored to assess progress with noxious weed management or solving soil erosion problems. These may be monitored for a shorter period of time but would be an important part of the overall monitoring project.

Tandi Tomt has been helping develop trend monitoring on the Hibbard ranch.

They had some places that they just wanted to monitor over the years and determine trend with it, so we have PVC pipe set up in a three-foot square that we just go, and I put the hoop out there and take pictures directly of the site and then just the north, south, east and west directions so that we can get a visual.

And then they wanted it set up just so anyone could basically go out there, even if I wasn't here or whatever, that they could go back and over the years still be able to do the same project. So we just have the description of the plot location by paces from a gate, or a fence, or a corner post; description of the soil; topography, rainfall for the year; range condition; grazing use; and then any other information we have out there. So, I just look at the site and determine, you know, approximately what's going on there. Maybe weeds versus plants; the age, kind of the age group of plants; what's been grazed, what hasn't.

If steel posts are used to mark monitoring locations, they should be set about 75 feet in a known direction, away from the actual transect location. Livestock will rub on the posts and disturb your transect if the steel post is placed too close to the monitoring site.

Learn to identify the trend indicators in your pastures. Are forage plants productive and vigorous? Is species composition changing? Is there adequate litter on the surface? Is there excessive bare ground, club moss and or lichens? One example of an attainable goal with changes in grazing management over a 5-year period may be to reduce bare ground by 20 percent. Is there evidence of recent soil erosion?

Let's review what information you should be gathering.

Grazing records are extremely important for analyzing why your rangeland may be trending toward, trending away from, or have not changed in any direction for a period of time in relation to goals you have set. This would include turn-in, turn-out dates; class and weight of livestock; Animal Unit Months (AUMs) used; stubble height remaining of key forage species including utilization levels; any weather events; fire activity; monthly precipitation data would be beneficial; uncommon or unusual insect activity; wildlife use and activities including rodents, deer, elk, antelope, birds and others. The measurements taken will be determined by the resource goals you have established for your ranch. For example, if your goal is improved range health by reducing bare ground by 10 percent and increasing surface litter by 15 percent, you will need measurements of bare ground and surface litter cover.

It is important that you take landscape and ground photos. You may also want to take other photos to show weeds in pastures; display utilization levels after cattle have been moved; and show evidence of insect damage, fire, or weather events.

Conduct cover measurements to show the percentage of bare ground, basal and canopy cover by species or plant type, litter cover, as well as cover of lichens, moss, dense club moss or rocks.

This is the line point intercept. The photo monitoring allows us to see changes over time as we compare, but, um, the line point intercept allows us to see more intricate change, um, as we can see exactly what plants are out there at each point and compare them over the years. And that'll show us more subtle change, whereas photo points will show bigger changes.

As far as timelines: when should you collect long-term monitoring data? Photographs should be taken every year on the permanent transects. Time should be allocated during the growing season to take photographs, if possible during the same month each year. The best time to take photographs would be when the rangeland is still green and plants are flowering, during the month of July, give or take a couple of weeks and depending on the year. This way you will be able to see differences in the photos more distinctly over time and identification of plants will be easier this time of year.

We try to do it together as a family, you know, like in July. If you can monitor somewhat close to the same time every year I think your results are going to be a little more meaningful.

Cover measurements should be taken every two to five years. Although changes may be difficult to see visually from year to year, cover measurements may reveal subtle changes that are not obvious to the naked eye. Drier areas will likely respond more slowly than wetter areas. Keep a small notebook in your shirt pocket or pickup that is always available for jotting down information that can later be added to the grazing records documentation.

To successfully use long-term trend monitoring does not require much of your time. Although there is a wide variety of ranch size in Montana, taking photos on the permanent transects in locations across your ranch should not take more than one day. On many ranches a portion of a day would be adequate.

If you need help reading the transects for cover information every few years, ask for assistance and schedule time with someone you trust and who is more familiar with plant identification and cover sampling. Montana ranchers, Walter Borntrager, Jim Ekland, and Carla Delp formed a monitoring group to help each other out with this.

And it turned out that Jim Ekland and Carla Delp both had an interest and we started talking about it and decided that we would just get together and help encourage each other and help us try to figure out how to utilize the monitoring in our programs, you know, effectively.

We meet once a year in the summer time and we go to each other's places and we, ah, we do a transect line and record that and monitor cages. And then we do a monitoring plot and take a picture of it; and everything is recorded. And it's a really, a benefit tool for us to talk to each other, get together.

There's lots of times where you don't talk to your neighbor for a long time. Like, if I wasn't in this with Walt I might not talk to him very much. I might not talk to Carla. This way it keeps us all together, you know, and talking to each other and different ideas. It's just, it's just kind of a really good thing.

The key to monitoring is the final critical step: evaluating your monitoring data and making any necessary management changes. Compare photos and cover measurements not only from this year but from previous years as well. Review your goals and analyze the results to determine if management goals are or are not being met. Then make a plan for the next growing season. This could involve a change in grazing rotation, a change in a kind or class of livestock, length of time in individual pastures, maybe longer rest periods.

If you are unsure about how to integrate the results confer with others you trust and who are familiar with your operation. This may be a private rangeland consultant or a rangeland conservationist that has helped you develop a grazing management plan.

OK, here's an example of what we're really striving for. This is the State grass of Montana, blue bunch wheat grass, and it should be the site dominant grass in the historic plant community here. But we're wanting to build that. You can see all the green material that its producing, even in a dry and below normal growing season.

Ricketts says it makes a more drought resistant, more weed resistant plant community providing more total energy to livestock and wildlife.

But it isn't just about the grasses like bluebunch wheatgrass and thickspike wheatgrass that's growing in here. But it's about these things I would call little protein or mineral blocks scattered across the range, like dotted gay feather, a warm season decreaser forb. It decreases with heavy grazing pressure just like the blue bunch wheatgrass decreases with heavy grazing pressure. So does the dotted gay feather. They take a little bit of this, it ups their protein and their minerals in their diet to keep it in balance with high energy grasses as they dry into the wintertime. And we also have purple prairie clover growing here, which is about 20 to 30 percent protein when it's green and growing. And as the grasses dry, it helps make up that deficiency on the livestock's intake.

So together this makes a weed resistant, drought resistant plant community that's highly productive. This is the rancher's true crop. They're just harvesting and marketing it through their livestock or through their wildlife.

Monitoring can be a family activity and very satisfying as you see changes on your range and you see progress towards meeting your goals all due to the changes you have made. And remember, positive changes you make in management will impact the profitability and long-term sustainability of the ranch for future generations.

Technical assistance is available from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. For more information go to