New tools on the market are lending a technological twist to the sometimes tedious task of monitoring range condition.
"Technology tools can be really helpful if you know how to use them," says Colorado State University range scientist Roy Roath. But he adds that their use hinges on each producer's needs.
While they’re not essential for the job, these tools can help make range monitoring faster (and even fun). Here’s a look at what’s available:
Go Digital. For folks who use photography for comparison purposes, digital cameras offer a quick and efficient way to monitor rangelands. These gadgets are as easy to use as a regular camera and are becoming more economical ($200-500). Best of all, digital photos allow images to be instantly labeled and stored on disk.
Mapping Gizmos. Global positioning systems (GPS) are also becoming more economical. These hand-held mapping units can be especially useful in marking photo points or transect lines that you want to return to annually. Or, use them for logging locations that are weed infested or being monitored for range improvements.
Computer Calculations. Computer software is now being designed especially for range monitoring or assessments. But, to be effective, most programs require some data from the field.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) ration-balancing program called Nutritional Balancer (NUTBAL) helps producers track animal performance and assess forage quality by monitoring what the animal is eating. (It’s available through your local NRCS office.)
Fecal samples are analyzed to predict dietary crude protein and digestible organic matter.
Once a producer has the dietary data, it can be added to herd information, pasture conditions, weather and other feed management data provided by the producer. The NUTBAL computer program can then predict animal performance, allowing the producer to make adjustments in pasture rotations or feed supplements.
If it’s weed control or pasture improvements you want to track, the AUM Analyzer is for you. This computer program, developed by Montana State University and Dow AgroSciences, helps determine the economic benefits of controlling rangeland weeds or brush on pastures.
But again, you’ll need to do some groundwork. If you provide weights of grasses clipped in treated and untreated areas, the AUM Analyzer compares forage production and stocking rate between those areas. It converts forage data into the number of animals the pasture can support with or without control. You can then compare the value of weed control to expected returns from increased production.