Extension column: Monitor pasture growth, use for better grazing management
August 1, 2013
As the year's longest days arrive, timely moisture has improved attitudes and pasture availability in many areas. While the relief is welcome, soil moisture reserves remain limited and cool temperatures suggest that total growing season production will remain below average. The Current Drought Monitor identifies continuing drought in central and southwestern South Dakota with more extreme conditions in adjoining regions of Nebraska and eastern Wyoming.
If favorable moisture continues, recovery from the drought of 2012 may proceed in some areas. The grazing management decisions made as this growing season continues will have long-term influence on recovery. Short hay supplies have forced many producers to turn out on pastures that were already short and growing slowly. Keeping track of the recovery process could provide valuable guidance about ongoing grazing management decisions.
Livestock producers generally appreciate the value of production records. Knowing which cows are most fertile, productive and therefore profitable, can inform decisions about culling and perhaps replacements for the breeding herd. Would "production records" for pastures be valuable in planning grazing decisions? The challenge in evaluating pasture production status is that 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, and then record them in a way that changes that may be difficult to detect over the short term can be clearly identified over a longer period of time.
Since moisture is so critical to grazingland condition in arid and semi-arid regions, good records of precipitation are a necessity. 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.
A second "pasture production record" involves assessment of current year's production and use. Keeping pasture records in a pocket notebook in the same manner as calving records can be a valuable habit. Recording turn-in and turn-out dates for each pasture, along with stock class and number, provides clear guidance for future grazing planning. Adding a comment about the level of use when stock are removed from the pasture can increase the value of that record.
On a longer time scale, documenting landscape change (either positive or negative) is a valuable tool in assessing the response to grazing management. Was it appropriate to reduce stocking rates in response to poor growth due to drought? Did that decision actually lead to improving ground cover? To use a livestock analogy, did my "pasture conception rate or weaning weight" improve as the result of implementing the grazing plan?
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Clear feedback about grazing management decisions is essential to determine if progress is being made.
Producers in the Tri-State region will have an excellent opportunity to learn about keeping "pasture production records" and using them to guide management decisions at the end of July near New Underwood, S.D. SDSU and Land EKG are collaborating to present the EKG Blink Monitoring Workshop, July 30 and 31, at the Gary Howie Ranch.
Participants will leave this field course with well-practiced abilities in choosing monitoring sites, transect layout mechanics, and EKG photo station procedures. This outdoor class is designed for any rancher or conservation manager seeking a rapid, self-applied and repeatable monitoring program, right away. Participants will practice land monitoring basics, soil surveys, grazing indexing, forage production methods, surface cover percents, and objective photo methods, but will spend the majority of time learning monitoring mechanics for EKG transect lines. Additional time will be spent on "situational monitoring" and site recording techniques including an introduction to EKG DataStore.
The workshop will run from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. each day. Topics on July 30 will include: redefining agriculture, tracking precipitation, grazing records, cages and recovery pens, soil surveys, EKG grazing index, calculating forage production and beginning transect, and photo point set-up. A discussion on findings of SDSU's Bad River Watershed study will conclude the day. Training for July 31 will include transects, record keeping, repeat photography, management direction, and use of EKG DataStore.
Registration for the workshop requires payment of $300 before July 15, after which the rate will be $400. Participation will be limited to the first 35 registrants. All Participants will receive: EKG Field Guide & Field Forms; EZ-EKG pocket field cards for quick land assessment; a 6-month trial subscription to EKG DataStore ($120 value) and a Monitoring kit with materials to set up monitoring sites on individual ranches valued at $400. Accommodations are available for "SDSU-Land EKG" in Rapid City at the Days Inn ($120) or America's Best Value Inn ($89). There is also a campground in New Underwood.
Registration and further information is available from Sandy Smart: email@example.com; 605-688-4017. Learn more about rangeland monitoring and Land EKG at their website: http://www.landekg.com.
Rangeland recovery requires rain, but good management is also necessary to optimize that recovery. Commit to continuing or beginning rangeland monitoring for your operation and find opportunities to acquire the tools to do it effectively. Your livestock and your ranch business will benefit from improved and well informed decision making.