Skip Navigation

Transcript of Rangeland Utilization Monitoring 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.

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.

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 one objective.

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.

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 your mineral.

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 that.

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.

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.

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.

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.

It’s helped us meet our goals.

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