Drive the same vehicle every day, and you might not notice the brakes wearing down. The slow progression from perfect to poor makes it a surprise when, one day, you discover that the pads are gone, the disks and calipers are damaged and the repair bill has become more costly.
Rangeland can decline in much the same way. Everyday exposure blinds us to the gradual progression until some day we notice an eroded pasture filled with unpalatable weeds.

So, much like prudent drivers periodically checking brakes for wear, ranchers can benefit from an objective system of measurement that regularly plots the health and productivity of pastures and rangeland.

Ranchers, says Stan Parsons, CEO of Ranch Management Consultants, are in the business of converting sunlight energy to a form that consumers want to buy. They do that, he says, by trapping the energy in growing green leaves of grass plants. Livestock convert that energy into milk, meat and fiber. Monitoring, Dr. Parsons says, is a way to ensure the primary crop, grass, is performing at optimal levels. "Just like tracking your bank account or
doing preg-checks, keeping a finger on the pulse of the factors that determine profit is part of good management."

Dr. Parsons says a system should be simple to use and provide immediate feedback and direction for changes in management.

Range-management consultant Charlie Orchard, of Bozeman, Mont., agrees, saying the monitoring process should provide a payback. Typical systems used by the Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forest Service generate large volumes of data but fail to guide management decisions. In response, Mr. Orchard developed the "Land EKG" system, designed to help ranchers identify and solve range-management problems before sacrificing production and profitability.
What makes a healthy pasture?
Rangeland health, Mr. Orchard explains, has four basic ecological processes:

  • Energy flow, quite simply, involves the conversion of sunlight energy to plants, with animals converting plant energy into protein.
  • Mineral cycling involves returning minerals from plant material to the soil for use by later generations of plants. It occurs in two ways, decomposition of dead plant material and through animal manure.
  • Water cycling refers to the availability of water for plant growth. Ranchers cannot influence the amount of rainfall on their pastures, but they can manage what happens to that water once it hits the soil surface.
  • Succession involves the mix of plant species on a pasture, and management strategies can influence whether the succession remains stable, moves toward more desirable species or begins to include undesirable species.

Not surprisingly, cattle play a key role in each of the four processes, and Dr. Parsons points out that management determines whether animal impact improves or degrades rangeland health. Good grazing management improves water cycling and mineral cycling and directs plant succession toward diversity. These improvements lead to greater energy flow, allowing a higher level of productivity.

Mr. Orchard recently helped initiate a land-monitoring program at Elk Mountain Ranch, a large cattle and bison operation in southern Wyoming. The ranch features considerable diversity in terms of landscape, ranging from rolling prairie to steep foothills to mountain forests. Each area has different environmental conditions and different plant species, meaning different management requirements and different measures of health and productivity.

Ranch manager Diane Palm had two objectives in mind when she decided to begin a land-monitoring program. One was to assess her management practices, such as stocking rates and grazing intervals, on existing pastures. Another was to
establish a baseline and help her plan for the introduction of livestock to previously
ungrazed areas. Initial measurements on an ungrazed site indicate the area was over-rested and would benefit from grazing. Once grazing begins, subsequent measurements will help Ms. Palm fine-tune her stocking rates, resting periods and other practices to optimize the long-term, sustainable productivity.
How it works
The Land EKG system that Ms. Palm and Mr. Orchard use at Elk Mountain Ranch is relatively simple to set up but provides comprehensive information about the rangeland ecosystem.

The first steps, Mr. Orchard explains, are to identify areas to monitor and to lay out 200-foot transects that will serve as permanent measuring sites. Sites can be either representative areas or areas of special concern, such as those subject to overgrazing or erosion. Mr. Orchard marks each end of the transect with sturdy plastic stakes, then marks measurement sites at 50-foot intervals along the transect. He uses a rope loop, with a 93-inch circumference, to define each measurement area. For subsequent monitoring, Ms. Palm will return to these exact locations, providing a consistent and objective measure of the trends influencing the health and productivity of her pastures.

The monitoring process involves listing indicators for each of the four ecological cycles. A simple matrix lists degrees of health for each indicator, ranging from excellent to danger. The general idea is to measure each process, then prescribe management tools to bring each into a goal range.

At this stage, Dr. Parsons says, the land manager needs to ask several questions regarding what changes are needed to pasture management, such as: "Are we producing the kinds of plants we want? Are they healthy and in a productive phase, which enables them to trap maximum sunlight energy? Are we aiding the underlying factors that affect grass production?"

Initial measurements provide a baseline with subsequent observations indicating what aspects of rangeland health are improving or declining. The process also measures results of changes in management practices.

"Once we identify specific problems in a pasture, we have several tools at our disposal to improve such things as mineral cycling, water cycling and germination of favorable forage plants," Mr. Orchard says. "These tools can include fire, rest, animal impact or mechanical impact."

Rangeland monitoring helps managers make informed decisions and improve or maintain productivity. The process also can serve as valuable documentation of environmental stewardship. Mr. Orchard relates a story from his family's ranch in Wyoming a few years back. After fires raged through huge areas
of public rangeland, including his family's leases, BLM officials said lease-holders must discontinue grazing the entire area for two years. Mr. Orchard had several years of monitoring records, including photos along permanent transects, which helped him show that the rangeland on his leases had recovered and could benefit from grazing. Based in part on those records, the bureau allowed him to continue grazing without interruption. His neighbors lost their grazing rights for two years with serious financial impact.

Dr. Parsons says that everyone who is in the business of trapping sunlight energy for conversion to consumer products can benefit by monitoring rangeland systems. "Especially," he says, "those whose land management has generally been left to chance."

For more information about the 'Land EKG' system of rangeland monitoring, contact Charlie Orchard at 406-582-7480.