Allan McGinty likes rocks. An interesting situation, given that McGinty is one of the Southwest's leading authorities on semi-arid range management. But then, managing rangeland in country where rain is merely an interruption to drought takes a different approach.

He gestures as the truck bumps down a dusty, rocky road on the McCoy-Remme Ranches between Balmorhea and Fort Davis, TX. “This rock, I know it's a pain, but it's a blessing, too,” says McGinty, a Texas AgriLife Extension range management specialist in San Angelo. He explains that because the rough rock surfaces slows the water, it ponds up in places and hides plants during the bad years. “That rock is responsible, I think, for us emerging from these droughts as well as we do,” he says.

The McCoy-Remme Ranches are a fine place for people who like rocks. The operation covers more than 300 sections in and around the Davis Mountains, which rise upwards of 7,000 ft. above the Chihuahuan desert of Far West Texas. It's a dry, rocky place where stocking rates run around 12 cow-calf pairs to a section and a cow has to be agile and thrifty to stay in the herd.

Just add water

But when it rains, the grass responds immediately, bringing a flush of green to accent the reds and browns of the rocky terrain.

That's no accident. It's the result of years of intense application of some very sophisticated range monitoring and management. Even though it's a desert operation, it has long vistas of grassy pastures, dry and brown from another emerging drought, but thick and leafy and substantial, ready to catch and hold every drop of rain.

It begins with a series of photo points that allow Kaare Remme, co-owner of McCoy-Remme Ranches, to monitor range health over time.

McGinty says it's like watching your kids grow up. “You don't see them grow or change. But when grandma comes to the house and she hasn't seen them for six months, she says, ‘my goodness, that boy's grown,’ because she has these snapshot memories of what they looked like.”

Photo points are those snapshot memories for a rancher watching his grass grow, McGinty says. “We can look at the same piece of ground over the years and can make the decision, ‘Am I doing good as far as my stocking rate or am I overstocked? Or does it look like I can increase numbers?' ”

How it works

Each of the 26 monitoring locations on the McCoy-Remme Ranches uses two T-posts, set north-south and 300 ft. apart. At four or five points between the posts, they'll mark a location with rebar.

“You walk to one fence post and take a picture of the other one and vice versa. So you've got two landscape pictures,” McGinty says. Then, at each spot along the line marked with rebar, he lays a yard-square frame of PVC pipe and takes a close-up picture of the vegetation within the frame.

Then he scores the pictures, based on range condition. “It's kind of like body-condition scoring on cattle,” he says.

McGinty says it's important to take the picture at the same spot and the same time of year. It's not a big undertaking. Even on an operation the size of the McCoy-Remme, they can get through the 26 locations in three days. But over time, those pictures give an accurate idea of range condition.

It's not important to identify every single plant inside the plot, McGinty says. “All you have to know is taller plants are generally better than shorter plants. Plants coming in that we don't like. Plants dying that we do like. Bare ground is bad. Dead plant material on the ground is good.” Then, over time, you can monitor and score each site on those factors.

“The range monitoring points help us make an informed decision for intensity of use,” Remme says. “For example, if you want to run an engine and not ruin it, you need a temp gauge. So where should you put the temperature sensors so you're not burning up one part while another part isn't working very hard? Then, if you're pulling a trailer up a long hill, it lets you know if you can go very fast or not. You might want to back off a little bit due to intensity of use.”

Locations for photo points are selected to represent a broader area of the pasture. Some sites are selected so they can monitor for the weak link – easily accessible sites that may get overused. Less-accessible areas of the pasture may be selected to compare intensity of use. “If you've got an easier place to hammer and a harder place to hammer, and you're maintaining the easier place OK, then you know you're doing all right up there (in the less-accessible part of the pasture),” Remme says.

That information allows Remme and his cowboys to better manage grazing pressure. They run large pastures, many around 6,000 acres. As an area in a pasture begins to reach their pre-set threshold for maximum use, they'll use hard molasses supplement tubs and fence off or turn on water to move cattle, and therefore grazing pressure, around the pasture.

Kicking it up a notch

Remme has taken the philosophy and practice of photo-point monitoring and kicked it up a few notches. He and his team at Remme Corporation in San Marcos, TX, have developed a way of combining the cowboys' experience in ranch operations, the science of range management and geographic modeling tools into a patented program where the information is not only quickly available, but useful. “This is a way we can look at all those layers of information and navigate through them,” Remme says.

“There's nothing new about it as far as the science goes,” he says. Much of the data comes from sources such as Natural Resource Conservation Service digital soil maps, U.S. Geological Survey digital contour maps and Texas Natural Resource Information System aerial photography.

“See these radiuses here?” he asks, spreading a map out on a coffee table. “That's land within a mile of water. This legend here is soil types. That's in your soil tech guides.”

With that data, Remme can produce a map on a laptop screen or on paper that shows all the layers of information important in managing a pasture. That, combined with the photo points, gives them an intensive and site-specific idea of the range condition in each pasture.

Why is that important? “This way, I know how to put it to bed as we're descending into drought,” Remme says. His philosophy is that cows are there to manage the range. So, as monitoring tells them that range condition is beginning to suffer from lack of rain, he can anticipate where and when to move cattle, or adjust his marketing plan to stay a year ahead of drought.

More importantly, he knows how to manage as the land emerges from drought. Remme saw the advantage of that several years ago as the region came out of a 12-year drought.

To illustrate that point, Remme walks out to one of his photo-monitoring points, chosen because it had a fair amount of plant diversity, but was close to a dirt tank in a rough draw and impossible to fence off. “We thought if we could manage this, we'd know we were doing OK in the other spots,” Remme says.

During the worst of the drought, they deferred grazing the pasture for about three years. Because they knew it had the potential to support plant diversity, and because they had pulled out before the plant roots were damaged by excessive grazing, the pasture came back quickly when the rains returned.

“You take two pastures. Drought made them both look bad. But you know one was diverse before and the other was not. Now they're both starting to green up, and you need to know which one you should use and which one should have more rest.”

The pasture you probably want to use as you recover is the one that had less plant diversity, he says, “because a more diverse pasture has more capacity to come back with that diversity, and you don't want to miss that chance.”

Remme's system is sophisticated, yet it's a concept his cowboys can easily plug into. “The most elegant thing is our cowboys can check their country just like they would 100 years ago. But it's over our specified route and over our specified points. They come back with a usable view of what's there instead of an opinion.”

Remme, who subscribes to the theory that all ranch management starts with boots on the ground, calls that “downloading the cowboys' shirt pockets.” And over time, as his cowboys see the positive effect of their management, they become more than just hired hands.

“He's actually a living part of that environment he's operating in. You need his heart and mind, his experience and the application of his opinions and judgments a lot more than you just need his back.”

When that happens, Remme says, the person living in that environment and responsible for its long-term health can make a system designed for a computer more than just a system.

“That person himself is a monitor. Then you're downloading more than just his shirt pocket. You're making him more relevant to the health of the range by giving him the tools and methods to be more effective,” Remme says.

Photo points

For more information on range monitoring using photo points, go to these resources: