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Documenting grazing results through monitoring

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Monitoring can be very extensive or quite simple, but getting useful information is the key.

Losing their U.S. Forest Service grazing permits was a fear expressed by Washington ranchers as reported in the March 31 issue of the Capital Press. This situation illustrates the need for livestock managers to document rangeland trends and overall range health through their own monitoring program. The article mentioned that monitoring was taking place, but some of the permittees were not involved in that process.

How does a livestock manager get a monitoring program started? Monitoring pays.

It is a valuable management tool and a means of documenting the outcome of the current management.

Monitoring can be very extensive or quite simple, but getting useful information is the key. To get started, the manager needs to determine what information will be the most useful. Exactly what specific things need to be evaluated? A person with considerable experience in rangeland monitoring can be very helpful with this. Talk to a Natural Resources Conservation Service range specialist or an extension range specialist to help you get started.

There are a variety of monitoring programs available. Some programs require a significant amount of time and if the manager can’t allocate that much time, it may be necessary to hire an experienced person or firm to do the monitoring. That decision must be made by the individual manager. The important element is that the monitoring program selected provides information that will be the most useful in making management decisions and documenting the results of the management being applied.

The most simple monitoring system is to establish permanent photo points and take photos every year. These photos coupled with your written observations give a basic record of what is taking place.

The monitoring program you choose should assess the four ecosystem processes, i.e. the water cycle, mineral cycle, the composition and trends of the plant community and the solar energy flow. The solar energy flow is a measurement of how well the plants are utilizing sunlight to produce plant growth and development.

Grazing cages are very useful. They prevent grazing in a small area so that at the end of the growing season one can clip and weigh the forage produced and calculate the year’s production, as well as determine how much forage was removed by grazing that year. A 4-foot-square wire cage with a wire top can be made from livestock panels. It must be staked down so that animals can’t move it. The grazing cage should be relocated at the end of the growing season, so that only one year’s growth and utilization is measured.

An all-weather rain gauge is a useful tool. Some of the newer rain gauges are made of material that will not freeze and break. Just knowing whether the accumulated precipitation is above average, average or below average is helpful in evaluating changes that have occurred.

Additional kinds of measurements and evaluations can be made to provide a more comprehensive assessment of trends and general rangeland health. A practical monitoring program allows the manager to track what is happening and to make good decisions based on the condition and health of the plant communities in that land base.

If you, as a rangeland manager, do not already have a monitoring program, this spring is a good time to establish one. See your rangeland specialist.

Doug Warnock, retired from Washington State University Extension, lives on a ranch in the Touchet River Valley where he writes about and teaches grazing management. He can be contacted at

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