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Planned Grazing - July 2010

Take Conjecture Out of Management with Monitoring

By Lorie Woodward Cantu

Editor's Note: This is the seventh installment in a 12-part series on planned grazing. This series has been created in partnership with Dr. Richard Teague, associate resident director and professor at the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Vernon; Dr. C. Wayne Hanselka, a private range management consultant based in Corpus Christi, who also serves as professor and Extension specialist emeritus with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service; and individual ranchers experienced in using planned grazing.

monitor: "to watch, keep track or check usually for a special purpose." Merriam-Webster

Monitoring rangeland conditions over time is a vital practice for identifying emerging trends on a ranch. An active monitoring program allows ranchers to adapt their grazing practices to sustain improvements in rangeland conditions or correct problems before the inadequacies inflict permanent damage.

Kaare Remme, co-owner of the McCoy-Remme Ranches located in and around the Davis Mountains in far West Texas, uses monitoring, supported by a variety of sampling methods, as the basis for successfully managing more than 300 sections in some of the state's driest, highest and most rugged terrain.

"On our ranch, the cattle are there to manage the range," Remme says. "From the beginning, we realized that we needed to quantify our forage inventory and objectively determine how to spend it wisely within our environmental budget. The system had to allow us to increase or decrease the intensity of the grazing pressure as conditions dictated."

Beginning in 1992, Remme, working with Texas AgriLife Extension Range Specialist Allan McGinty, developed and implemented a monitoring system that has allowed him to improve the ranch's range condition, despite dealing with almost constant drought, including one that spanned 12 years.

Although the monitoring system has become more sophisticated over time, its foundation is photo points.

McGinty says, "Photo points are effective tools because watching a ranch change is like watching your kids grow up. Because you are with your kids every day, you don't necessarily notice them growing and changing. But when grandma, who hasn't seen them in six months, comes to the house, the changes are immediately obvious to her because she has snapshot memories of what the kids looked like before. Photo points are the snapshot memories for ranchers watching their grass grow."

Remme and McGinty have annual photo records dating back to 1992.

"With these photo records, we can look at the same piece of ground over the years and actually see the changes," McGinty says.

Because of the size of the ranch, choosing the location for the photo points was critical. Remme and McGinty, with geographic information system (GIS) assistance from Remme Corporation, used a variety of maps and intense local knowledge to select locations that represent the pasture as a whole, many of which are 10,000 acres or more in size.

The team identified 26 monitoring locations on the McCoy-Remme Ranches. The locations, which are 300 feet long, are laid out on a north-south axis and both ends are marked with a T-post. They use rebar to mark three to four individual photo points along the line. The ranch also monitors at more than 150 additional forage monitoring locations.

Every year the amount of forage needs to be assessed at the end of the main growing period to ensure stock numbers match the forage supply. Throughout the year, ranch staff makes forage observations, as needed, to recalculate forage inventory and to continuously refine the grazing plan.

Same time, same places, each year

Each year, after the first frost, McGinty takes photographs at each location. He begins by standing at one T-post and taking a picture of the other and then he reverses the process. Then, at each spot along the line marked with rebar, he lays a yard-square frame of PVC pipe and takes a close-up picture of the vegetation within the frame.

After completing the process at all the locations on the ranch, which takes about three days, McGinty compares the pictures to the previous year's photos. He uses an index, ranging from -1 to +1, to note positive or negative trends, and scores the pictures based on range condition. He likens the system to body condition scoring on cattle. These results indicate range health and trend of change.

Every three years to five years, McGinty analyzes species composition, brush density and canopy cover to identify additional changes to the landscape. This monitoring indicates range health and trend of change over a longer term.

Remme says, "Any decisions we make about increasing or decreasing the grazing intensity in a particular pasture are based on hard evidence, not opinion or conjecture. The consistency offered by our monitoring system is key to making progress over time."

In arid climates, leaving a minimum forage residue is particularly important for improving range condition and helping insulate the land from the ravages of drought, so Remme uses the photo evidence to set thresholds for the amount of residue he wants to remain in particular pastures.

On all types of vegetation, the percentage of leaf left after grazing is important, Remme says. Leaving enough leaf on the plants allows them to process sunlight and rain more efficiently, so that the ranch gets more growth per inch of rain.

"The best information is useless, if it can't be used by the boots on the ground," Remme says. To ensure that his ranch managers can make the most of the information, Remme has developed a patent-pending modeling method that combines all the monitoring information into easy-to-understand results. When the managers combine the results with the photo points, they have an intensive, site-specific idea of the forage amount and range condition in each pasture.

"Across the ranch and across our employees, we have a standard process that allows us to gather and analyze the information consistently," Remme says. "Standardization becomes more important as you get more people spread out across more land. Regardless of the size of the operation, though, you can't monitor in a vacuum. You have to know why you're doing it and what you're going to do with the information. As circumstances change over the ranch, monitoring helps the manager ensure that the right number of cattle are in the right place for the right reason."

On the McCoy-Remme Ranches, the accurate information allows the managers not only to spot when they are going into a drought, but, more importantly, to manage wisely as they emerge from a drought.

"Coming out of a drought, it's tempting to turn your cattle back into your most diverse plant communities, but actually our monitoring has shown us that it's the wrong thing to do," Remme says. "The less diverse plant communities are less likely to be harmed by grazing as they emerge from the drought than the more diverse communities. You want to protect the diversity by deferring grazing a while, because money can't buy diversity." For example, a Tobosa flat has less risk of being harmed by post-drought grazing, while the more diverse, more fragile plant communities are at greater risk.

"Although we don’t always think of it this way, agriculture is environmental management," Remme says. "When we do it correctly, we can stimulate rangelands to function as they evolved, improving their condition along the way."

"Planned Grazing 7 - Take Conjecture Out of Management with Monitoring" is from the July 2010 issue of The Cattleman magazine.