June 20, 2005
Don’t monitor pastures after problems, monitor before they occur. This statement makes a lot of sense to me. However, most land monitoring is conducted after problems have occurred.
Monitoring land health conditions has been a passion of mine for a long time. Conventional land monitoring, similar to what most government agencies do, usually is conducted after something has happened or changed. We taxpayers send out our range scientists to document environmental changes and conditions. We do a lot of monitoring this way to defend ourselves. I view this as wasteful, expensive and time consuming, which is totally non-proactive.
Rangeland monitoring folks layout transects (a line or plot with points on the land). They inventory the vegetation’s ecological state, habitat types, plant species, plant density, plant frequency, canopy cover, basal area, trends and take a host of other measurements.
They often compare their findings with ecological climax (peak) plant communities, particular plant species that would be growing in that spot if there were no disturbances. When they find big differences, they document a problem after the problem has taken hold.
I know from experience—and it should be obvious—that this kind of monitoring is down-right slow in addressing, finding and fixing problems. I do know that certain organizations and people need to defend themselves. However, these studies can, and do, overlook obvious problems, such as new invasive plants, spot overgrazing, poor water cycling, inadequate organic matter or plants dying from a lack of disturbances.
Instead of coming onto the land after livestock have left, wouldn’t it be worthwhile to simply observe animals while they are grazing? And wander around conducting what I call pasture walking to prevent problems?
Try this as an example of proactive land monitoring: Get a pair of field glasses, get as close to the animals as you can and zoom in on what they are eating. Sit there for awhile and watch them closely. Then walk over to where they were grazing and closely examine the plants they were biting.
If you find big patches of what was fast-growing, green grass, chopped off at ground level and the animals have been in that area for quite some time, I’d say, they are overgrazing. You have just found a problem.
If you do this early enough in the game, and have an alternative plan to deal with these findings, you save badly needed future forage production.
Proactive monitoring is really an ongoing effort to directly tie management to monitoring. Right now, on the spot, today, adjust your grazing management to prevent common problems from occurring or prevent them from becoming big.
I know that this is somewhat time consuming, but perhaps by becoming an astute grass manager you can graze longer into the fall and save expensive hay feeding that greatly reduces wintering costs. In other words, give proactive monitoring a focused purpose that grows more grass, which becomes well worth your time and effort.
Conventional land monitoring records end-results, collects data after treatment, determines what has happened, proves results and recommends change after problems occur. This is slow to make changes and does not fix problems.
Proactive land monitoring controls results, collects data during treatment, monitors to make things happen and prevents negative results. Changes are made before problems occur or become significant.
Here is a suggestion on how to make a proactive land monitoring program pay for itself.
While the livestock are still in the pasture, observe them grazing. Note the location they prefer to graze. Your purpose is to visit these areas often enough to check the livestock grazing progression toward some predetermine early warning indicators.
Early warning indicators to look for include:
3 Spot over grazing —Check for small areas where the livestock seem to concentrate. Use a quick portable electric fence to let these areas recover.
3 Down yellow colored litter—Look between the live plants to keep the soil surface covered.
3 Stubble height—Leave enough green grass leaves behind for quick regrowth so that you can come back to this area again.
3 Too much trampling—Prevent soil compaction and excessive livestock trailing from hungry cows. Move them often during fast plant growth.
3 Standing grass—Leave enough grass behind to prevent wind and water from removing valuable soils.
3 Gray-colored dead grass––Locate hard to graze spots and move livestock there to rest the overgrazed spots. Be innovative using low-stress livestock handling and herd placement. In other words, become a better herder.
You want to prevent things like very short green grass, bare soil, or areas with no litter present. That is the future organic energy that healthy profitable grassland needs. Look for the right time to move livestock before they get hungry. Check to see if they still can get full-mouth bites of grass, and move them before they start wandering around pressuring fences looking for greener pastures.
To do this you must have a flexible grazing plan that will allow for early adjustments. Proactive monitoring will also help you to know when it’s safe to come back to a previously-grazed pasture.
I know that I came down hard on conventional land monitoring. I know conventional monitoring keeps track of long-term vegetational change. But, I also know from experience that this expensive data goes all too often unused. So please consider proactive monitoring and good grass management to prevent problems. This kind of on-the-spot monitoring can, and will, pay big time dividends. — Wayne Burleson
(Wayne Burleson is a land management consultant working out of Absarokee, MT. If you have any questions, feel free to contact Wayne at 406/328-6808 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also has an educational Web site at www.pasturemanagement.com.)