By: Pat Johnson and Roger Gates, SDSU Extension
Livestock producers appreciate the value of livestock production records. Knowing which cows are most fertile, productive and therefore profitable, can inform decisions about culling and perhaps replacements for the breeding herd. Records are important for evaluating past decisions and planning for progress in their herd or flock. Pasture records are just as valuable. Records help evaluate your rangeland management each year and guide plans for the next grazing season. Evaluating pasture production status is challenging because landscape change is generally very slow; it can be nearly imperceptible to even the most careful observer. Knowing that grasslands are recovering or moving to a more productive condition requires a commitment to careful and repeated observation. Fortunately, most of those observations are easily made. The challenge is to make them faithfully, and record them so that changes that are difficult to detect over the short term can be clearly identified over a longer period of time.
So, what records should you keep?
Weather data: Since moisture is so critical to grazing land condition in arid and semi-arid regions, good records of precipitation are a necessity. Temperatures (daily high and low) are also useful in understanding plant growth and production. Late spring freezes delay and reduce growth; early fall frost ends growth and limits production; and cool summer temperatures can boost cool-season grass growth, but limit growth of warm-season grasses. Accessing historical records from a nearby weather station may provide guidance about "average" expectations for rainfall, but records taken on the ranch provide much better guidance about current year growing conditions and information to guide immediate grazing decisions. Precipitation and temperature can vary dramatically over very small distances; it is not at all unusual for a rainstorm that drenched your neighbor’s pastures to totally miss yours. Rain gauges and thermometers are inexpensive; many require little maintenance and record or store information for several days.
Grazing dates and stocking rates: When did you turn livestock onto each pasture? How long did they stay there? How many animals, which species (cattle, sheep), what class (cows, steers, ewes, etc.), and how much did they weigh? These records, especially when recorded over several years, can help explain changes in your pasture vegetation…and provide information to guide modifications. Without good, consistent records, however, you will find it difficult to remember exactly what happened in that pasture, so making changes to management will be much harder. Keeping these pasture records in a pocket notebook in the same manner as calving records can be a valuable habit.
Pasture production and utilization: Determining current year’s production and utilization doesn’t require a college degree or a lot of training. A couple of inexpensive tools and a little time will yield lots of useful information. A small hoop, a pair of clippers, a paper bag, and a small hanging scale are all you need to estimate production. Toss the hoop into the pasture, clip to the ground all the vegetation rooted in the hoop and put it in the bag, and then weigh the bag on the scale. Repeat a few more times in the pasture. We recommend a 0.96 ft2 hoop (SDSU Extension or NRCS can help you get or make one) and a scale that weighs in grams. Zero the scale for the empty bag weight; the weight of your clippings multiplied by 100 gives you lb/acre of wet forage if you use the 0.96 ft2 hoop. You can record the wet weight or translate it to dry weight (NRCS has some handy tables to make that easy); what is important is that you do it the same way every year at about the same time. Utilization records can be as simple as recording a comment about the level of use when stock are removed. More accurate estimates can be obtained by clipping inside and outside of grazing exclosures using your production hoop.
Monitoring: Ranchers are sometimes intimidated when pasture monitoring is introduced. Perhaps we "academics" have left the impression that you have to be a botanist to accomplish effective monitoring. That’s not necessary. One of the most effective monitoring techniques uses a camera. Choose one or two spots in your pasture that you think are representative of the condition of that pasture. Mark the spot (gps, fencepost, etc.) so you can find it each year. Take landscape photos from that spot; be sure to either date stamp the photo, or put a sign in the picture that tells where and when the photo was taken. It’s best if you can take your photos at about the same time each year. You can also take photos of a plot on the ground; make sure you can find the same spot again for future photos. Print the photos out and bring them with you the next year so that you can get the same view each time. You can look at the photos taken of the same landscape or plot over a series of years and detect changes that you might miss without the photographic record.
General impressions: Taking time to evaluate the effect of your grazing management on current and future rainfall effectiveness will provide the opportunity to continue what’s working and modify what’s not. In the same manner that it’s crucial to evaluate the condition of grazing animals (using tools like body condition score), it’s critical to "read the landscape," and consider the condition of the vegetation and the soil. That assessment begins with careful observation: "are the most desirable plants vigorous and healthy?" (The same questions we’re asking ourselves about the calves). "Is the soil surface protected? Does litter decay indicate a healthy cycle?" The other important step is keeping a record of the observation, so that changes (hopefully indicating improvement) can be detected.
One reward of livestock production is the progress observed in some important traits such as yearling weight or pregnancy percentage. That progress is only evident if records are kept to document the changes. Similar reinforcement can be obtained from excellent rangeland management. Records to demonstrate landscape change are essential to detect the progress.