Rangeland Monitoring Fact Sheet
Range and Pasture Technical Note Number MT-29
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and Pasture Technical
Note Number MT-29
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By Chuck Ring, Rangeland Management Specialist, Cheyenne, Wyoming and Sue
Noggles, Rangeland Management Specialist, Bozeman, Montana.
This publication introduces some basic concepts of monitoring rangeland
resources for land managers.
Why Monitor Rangeland?
- Healthy, vigorous, and productive rangelands are essential to the
survival of the livestock industry and other users.
- Important changes in rangeland health usually occur gradually and
oftentimes are too subtle to notice through casual observations. Also, human
memory is imperfect and tends to fade with time.
- Rangeland health deteriorates before livestock production will indicate
a problem. Livestock can compensate through preferential grazing to a point.
By the time a reduction in livestock performance is noticed, it may take
years for the rangeland to recover.
- Plan-Monitor-Replan. Monitoring is essential to determine if you are
meeting your goals and objectives. It enables you to continually adjust your
management strategies as needed.
- Monitoring can help you understand how much benefit you are getting from
a change in grazing management, or from investments in range improvements.
- Monitoring will help you to learn more about range plants (your crop!)
and how they interact with each other and with the grazing animals.
- Monitoring can instill a sense of pride and provide encouragement. It
can build confidence and provide success stories that can be shared with
What Do I Monitor?
- This of course depends on your goals and objectives. Ask the question,
“What information would be required in order for me to change my decisions
- All of the following may be important to measure for changes over time:
- Plant Species Composition: Will help you understand if the plants on
your rangeland are desirable, productive forage plants, or undesirable,
less productive and unpalatable plants. Will also give an indication of
whether weeds are becoming more prevalent. Generally speaking, improving
grazing management will show an improvement in plant species within the
first three years.
- Forage Productivity: Relates directly to how many animals can safely
graze in an area, and for how long, without damaging animal health or
plant vigor. Is your rangeland becoming more productive, or less
productive? Will you be able to run more animals in this pasture in the
future with good grazing management?
- Ground And Canopy Cover Factors: Ground and canopy cover are the
type and amount of material that protects the soil surface from
evaporation and erosion, such as growing plants, plant litter, mosses or
lichens, and gravel or rock. Measuring these factors over time will give
an indication on the amount of open, bare ground that is present, and if
it increasing or decreasing. This is very important because most
rangelands are limited in the moisture they receive, and this material
shields the soil surface from evaporation. These measurements will also
determine if the basal area of growing plants is increasing, which is an
indication of higher productivity.
- Forage Quality and Livestock Performance: A high level of rangeland
forage quality is essential for meeting or improving animal performance
goals. Monitoring changes in plant composition can give an indication of
whether or not forage quality is increasing or decreasing. It will also
provide information on the location and amount of toxic or poisonous
- Livestock Use: Utilization is the proportion of current - year
forage production that is consumed or trampled by grazing animals.
Utilization is an index of grazing impact to the land that can help a
rancher achieve his objectives. Measuring utilization on 2 to 3 key
forage species each year, will help you understand how your animals are
grazing in an area, and how much they are consuming of key plants. It
will tell you if you need to move animals out of a pasture sooner, or if
some areas are receiving very light grazing.
- Wildlife Use: Just as it is important to know how much your
livestock are grazing key plants, it is important to know how wildlife
is using and impacting your forage plants. Besides looking at
utilization on key plants, it is important to note the season of use,
utilization patterns, and trends in animal populations. Wildlife may
especially impact woody plants by browsing them, and monitoring
photographs can be used to monitor changes in woody plant vigor and
- Changes in Climate or Annual Rainfall: Not all changes that occur on
your rangelands are caused by grazing animals. Climatic shifts from dry
to wet rainfall years can change the plant composition and production of
the range drastically. Keeping records of annual rainfall will help you
understand how climate is impacting your rangeland. It may also help you
to make predictions in the future as to adjustments that may be needed
for stocking rates in wet or dry years.
How Do I Get Started Developing a Monitoring Program?
- Set the overall goal (or vision) for your ranch. This should reflect
your personal values, level of production, and the desired landscape
- Inventory the ranch to define current resource conditions and production
levels. Identify problem areas and opportunities for improvement.
- The historical grazing use (recorded in a useable format) is critical to
have during the planning process in order to determine cause and effects.
- Identify key areas and select locations for monitoring sites.
- Set realistic objectives that take into account the potential of each
site. Clearly describe what you want each key area to look like in the
- Select proper monitoring techniques that will: (1) measure the necessary
rangeland attributes, (2) document actual use by livestock and wildlife, (3)
be simple and quick to use, (4) be replicated consistently and objectively
by others, and (5) be accepted by other interested parties.
- Obtain technical assistance as needed from the Natural Resources
Conservation Service, Cooperative Extension Service, State Natural Resource
Agencies, Bureau of Land Management, U. S. Forest Service, or others.
- Make a commitment of your time, not only to conduct annual monitoring,
but also to become more knowledgeable of rangeland monitoring and it’s
Must Monitoring Be a Long-Term Commitment?
- Monitoring should be a part of all decision making and used to evaluate
all phases of the conservation planning process.
- Monitor to make day-to-day management decisions. When should I move the
yearlings into the next pasture?
- Monitor to evaluate the past grazing season and plan for the next.
- Monitor to identify long-term trend. Will the condition of my
rangeland be worse, better, or the same five years from now?
What Types of Monitoring Methods Are There?
- Comparing photographs (close-up or general view) of the same area taken
over a period of years documents changes in the soil and plant community.
- Vegetative data can be collected and used to detect subtle changes that
occur over the long-term. Attributes that could be measured might include
plant composition, canopy cover, density of noxious weeds, ground cover
(for example, bare ground, litter, living plants), and so forth.
- Record actual use (livestock numbers and turn-in/turn-out dates). This
information is critical when trying to determine what is causing the
rangeland to respond either positively or negatively.
- Grass and browse utilization levels should be monitored during the
grazing season in order to make timely management decisions. Mapping the
pattern of pasture utilization at the end of the growing season identifies
under-used and over-used portions of the pastures.
Where on My Ranch Should I Monitor?
- It is impossible to monitor every acre. Select key areas that are
representative of the pasture as a whole in terms of soils, vegetation,
slope, aspect, distance to water, etc.
- You may wish to select critical areas that have exceptional values or
are unusually susceptible to damage (riparian areas, areas under public
scrutiny, critical wildlife habitat, etc.).
- Select areas where you would expect to see improvement fairly soon.
- Select an area in good condition to show that your new management
strategy or improvement practice designed to improve the problem areas is
not detrimental to other areas.
How Long Does It Take To Monitor?
- One to two days a year should be set aside to conduct long-term trend
monitoring on your ranch. Anymore than this is too much (unless you are
managing a very large operation).
- Monitoring techniques can be selected that are faster and easier to use
if very specific objectives are set. This allows you to monitor fewer
rangeland attributes and to focus on selected key plant species.
- Monitoring to make day-to-day management decisions is conducted
throughout the grazing season. This may only involve making observations and
notations on livestock in/out dates, rate of plant growth, degree of
utilization, physical damage, etc.
- An additional day or two (depending on the size of the ranch) will be
needed to map utilization levels at the end of the grazing season.
- This is where the real work begins. Set aside time to compile and
interpret the information and plan for the upcoming grazing season.
If you have any questions, please contact:
State Resource Conservationist
Phone: (406) 587-6998
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