Monitoring rangeland and pasture can be a quick, easy and useful way of gathering information to help a rancher’s bottom line. South Dakota State University Extension range livestock production specialist Eric Mousel says simple monitoring techniques that every ranch can use to quickly and effectively track changes in rangeland and pasture health include visual observation, forage utilization mapping, and use of photo points.

Visual observation can include a list of things that a manager should be appraising at permanently marked points throughout a pasture. These things can include abundance of key forage species; abundance of weeds; stubble height of key forage species; soil erosion; and ground cover.

Forage utilization mapping tracks how much of the current year’s forage yield is consumed or trampled by grazing livestock. Livestock distribution and forage utilization usually vary quite a bit within a pasture. Mapping the pattern of utilization throughout a pasture is a good way to identify over-used and under-used areas. Utilization maps can allow the manager to make critical management decisions based on pasture use.

Utilization can be measured in a variety of ways, but measuring residual stubble heights of key forage species and the use of grazing exclosures are the most common.

Photo points: Identifying several permanent points throughout a pasture and taking annual photos is a great way to monitor management effects on rangeland and pasture. Photos can be close-ups of a specific plot in the pasture, or a landscape photo that includes a landmark so the photo can be repeated annually (preferably both).

Using plot frames to mark close-up photo points is as easy as making a frame out of PVC and driving some stakes into the ground so you can put the frame in the same place every year. Use stakes that won’t puncture pickup tires.

"The important thing to remember about monitoring rangelands and pastures is to keep adequate written records and photos of your monitoring activities so you can compare the assessments over a long period of time. That allows you to better identify the true effect of management on the forage resource," Mousel says.