To accomplish goals as part of the strategic grazing plan, a proper monitoring plan must be in place. A monitoring plan is the collection and measuring of the variables associated with a strategic grazing plan, analyzing the data and then interpreting those results to make decisions and meet the established goals.
Aljoe stated, “The part of developing a strategic grazing plan most often ignored is the measuring and monitoring to determine if progress is being made toward the desired goals and objectives.”
A good monitoring plan is the only way to capture change, both positive and negative, and gives the manager the ability to make proper and timely grazing management decisions.
The most successful grazing land managers implement monitoring plans. The monitoring plan ensures changes in weather, grazing land health, plant communities, forage production or herd health are accounted for and recorded for review.
The most common reason stated for not implementing a monitoring plan is: “The process is too complicated or takes up too much time.” The plan can actually be relatively simple and should not take much extra time.
It is impossible to monitor every acre on the ranch, so select key sites to monitor in each pasture that are representative of the entire pasture. Make sure the sites are not in high-use areas or so far away from water that use is limited.
Consult a grazing land professional if help is needed determining key monitoring sites or for more in-depth information on monitoring techniques.
So what should you monitor and what records should you keep? Keep in mind that grazing lands are very complex. Any given pasture may be composed of several different soils, each with different potential plant communities. Each plant community supports its own mixture of grasses, forbs and woody species.
The proportion and abundance of species change over time because of weather, seasons and how we manage the resources. The mix of species and their abundance within each plant community affect present and future production for livestock or wildlife and the health of grazing lands.
Detailed grazing records are a must to monitor the herd’s impact on grazing lands. Grazing records track grazing period and recovery days, grazing cycles and seasons of use.
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Records including pasture identifications, grazable acres in each pasture, number of days grazed during each grazing event, number of head grazed, average weight per head and recovery period should be captured.
Combining this data with grazing-use data and precipitation data will allow the grazing land manager to interpret the results of all the techniques that have been included in the monitoring plan and use those results to make alterations to the strategic grazing plan.
Grazing use can be easily monitored on a frequent basis. A grazing stick can be used, with little extra time added to the daily routine, to measure grazing use on key sites within pastures currently being grazed. A grazing stick, in its simplest form, is a common yard stick. The stubble height of key forage species is measured on a minimum of one key site in the pasture.
Monitoring stubble height helps predict how long a pasture can be grazed before it is overutilized. When the average stubble height of the key species reaches a predetermined target height, it is time to rotate the herd.
Four inches is a good rule of thumb for average target stubble height for small grains, fescue, shortgrass prairies and bermudagrass, 6 inches for old-world bluestems and mixed prairie, 8 inches for tallgrass prairie and 12 inches for warm-season forage crops.
Grazing sticks can also be used to estimate the grazable forage available in introduced pastures. There is a direct relationship between inches of forage canopy height and pounds of forage per acre. A good rule of thumb for bermudagrass is 235 pounds per acre inch. Calibrating this method by comparing to clipping data will be needed.
More accurate grazing-use estimates can be made by using grazing exclosures or “cages.” This method excludes grazing animals from a small representative area so grazed vegetation outside the cage can be compared to ungrazed vegetation inside.
Cages should be placed on key sites and visually monitored periodically to determine grazing use. Forage production can be measured inside the cage and compared to production outside.
Cages should be large enough that forage production measurements can be collected multiple times during the growing season, then again after frost. Cages should be moved to a new area within the key site every winter. Previous season growth should be removed inside the cage to ensure it is not included in sampling the upcoming growing season’s production.
The ungrazed/unsampled forage gathered after frost will be the total production for the growing season and will be expressed in pounds per acre. Total yearly production can be compared to the expected production and production from previous years to help determine if grazing land health is increasing, decreasing or stable.
Grazing exclosures can also be used in grazing systems that include dual-purpose wheat to monitor first hollow stem. When grazing and grain production are both important, the detection of wheat’s first hollow stem is vital to determine when cattle should be pulled off. Ungrazed wheat from within the cage is used to make the determination.
Photo points are an excellent way to capture basic information on grazing land trend. Many managers think pictures are one of the most useful tools in a monitoring plan. Take pictures at permanent key grazing sites for comparison over time. The number of areas selected depends on the ranch size and number of unique sites.
Photos should consist of close-ups as well as landscape photos that include an easily identifiable landmark so the photo angle can be repeated. Photographs should be taken at least once a year at the same time of year, preferably in the fall. Take photos more often if you want comparisons at other times of the year.
Precipitation records should be collected year-round and should include information on the intensity of the rain event. A rain gauge attached to a post on each grazing cage is a great way to gather rainfall data. These records can be compared to historical monthly averages to help determine if changes were more related to weather patterns or management.
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Also, knowing when rainfall is below normal will aid in making decisions to minimize the impacts of drought on the strategic grazing plan.
Livestock are part of a strategic grazing plan and should also be monitored. Manure scoring has been described many times and can be a great technique to include in a monitoring plan.
Monitoring a herd’s manure score will indicate the quality of nutrition the herd has received in the past one to three days and will help a manager make decisions on when to rotate.
A monitoring plan gives timely information to manage a strategic grazing plan and helps the grazing manager learn about interactions among vegetation, grazing animals and rainfall as well as what changes those interactions will cause across the landscape.
Managers must monitor and document changes to ensure management is not causing damage to soil and plant communities and to evaluate whether or not past actions are producing desired results.
Managers who are dedicated to improving the quality of their pastures will ultimately see results in profitability, with economic and environmental changes that benefit the sustainability of their business.
PHOTO 1: An example of grazing plan records.
PHOTO 2: A grazing stick helps measure forage yield.
PHOTO 3: A grazing exclosure.
PHOTO 4: An example of precipitation records.
PHOTO 5: Manure scoring has been described many times and can be a great technique to include in a monitoring plan. Photos courtesy of Noble Foundation.