When your plants talk, listen!

Cattle Market & Farm Reports, Editorials
Sep 13, 2004
by WLJ
By Wayne Burleson
"Ouch," says the once tall range plant that was just bitten off for the fifteenth time. It says, "If you don't stop, I'm going to die."
Interesting, plants don't talk with words, but they do communicate just by their appearance. After all, don't people also communicate with body language?
This plant talk thing is a very simple method of monitoring plant health. Just walk into a home and listen (communicate) with your wilting house plant that you forgot to water. It says, "I'm thirsty, please water me."
Many academia-type range people monitor plant species as an indicator of departure from some state of historic plant community diversity––as stated in a benchmark, climax plant community. This method does tell part of the story, but for speedy practical purpose by the time a plant community has changed species types to "poor condition," we well-educated humans are way too late in suggesting management change. I sometimes wonder about traditional rangeland monitoring methods. They definitely have their limitations.
Here is another suggestion, take a pair of field glasses or a video camera with a good zoom lens, and walk out into your herd of livestock and try to get as close to them as you can.
You may have to use a little of the tactic the now famous Bud Williams does—his zig zag walking method. Don't look the cow in the eye, don't walk straight toward her, be slow, walk quiet, and move away from the direct approach, stop often so the animals think you're not a threat and not going to chase them off somewhere.
As you now do this, stop in the middle of the animals somewhere and just be very quiet for a while not looking at them. They will settle back down and go back doing what they all naturally do: eating, lying down, pushing each other, nursing, chewing their cud, etcetera.
Now zoom in on what they are eating, you will need to get at an angle to closely watch their mouths. I have done this often enough, and then walk over to closely examine the plants they were munching on.
This is where the plants, soils, and land start to talk and tell you their story. Just like the house plant, look very close and start asking questions like: At what height of plant growth are the animals grazing? What are their hoofs doing? What stage of active plant growth are the plants in? Is there any re-growth or tillering going on? What is covering the soil surface between the plants? How wide and green are the leaves. What is the situation with the soil moisture? Are the plants growing straight up or are the active growing leaves growing low and sideways––an indicator of over-grazing. What is the climatic stress doing, like wind, or no shade for small plants, or is the soil hard or cracked open?
Answers to these and other questions start to tell you what the plants are saying.
Here is a list of what some plants may be saying:
—"I'm tired of getting bitten off so many times––I need rest until I can fully recover my root system."
— "I'm just starting to recover from the first grazing. See all my nice new short green leaves. Don't bite me now, because I have no reserve energy left."
— "I'm too short and very hot, could you please shade me?"
— "I'm way too dry, see all the bare soils around me, please cover the soils with dead plant parts which will also feed all those soil critters that help me grow to full potential."
— "I'm getting way too old and stagnate, see all those old dead gray colored plant parts, please step on me, so I can grow some new, healthier leaves."
— "Look at my now narrow leaves, that's because I now have a shortened, weakened root system. I need rest and mulch with some phosphorus, please."
— "I'm just starting to send up brand new tillers, let me regenerate my off-spring before being grazed again."
— "I feel short and it's way too windy down here, please watch me more often, and leave more grass behind when you move all those skinny cows off to the next pasture."
— "I don't like all those brushy plants invading the neighborhood. Please increase the stock density and step on those nasty old bushes that showed up in our once healthy grasslands."
You will learn and discover more information if you will monitor individual plants, along with the area around them, and especially if there is a fenceline difference. Listen to what plants have to tell you.
I just went on another pasture walk with my wife and one of my grand daughters. We circled about two miles in a couple of pastures and the land told us its story: "Thanks for the increased rest periods; we are just starting to build back our energy."
This ranch pooled all animals into one herd of about 1,000 head. They carefully planned the entire grazing season to go through each pasture fast, trying not to go over a maximum of 10 days of grazing in their larger pastures. They are now moving away from the old peeled look, a negative energy flow that was robbing them of about 50 percent of their total forage production.
I find it more exciting to walk pastures now, and when the plants, soils and land start talking, I listen better. I try hard to come up with a management change suggestion to help the decision-makers move the land and all its components toward a pre-determined goal.
This is a very important step in pasture management and monitoring. That is, to have an agreed to target that all the people can easily see in their minds, or off you go, half-cocked in too many directions. Learning to hear the voice of the land is a good pro-active land monitoring method that will keep things on track and prevent train wrecks.
(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 rutbuster@montana.net. He also has an educational Web site at http://www.pasturemanagement.)