Its remarkable how high quality beef can be produced from low quality forages across the expansive, semi-arid rangelands of the world. Understanding our grazing lands is one of the most important things we can do as beef producers. Sustainable beef production in the western United States is contingent on rangelands that produce native vegetation. We rely on this vegetation to capture energy from the sun, expend that energy into forage, be grazed, reproduce, and then do it all over again during the next growing season. We often ask a lot of our rangelands as beef producers, especially in drought years. And, to top it all off, we still need rangelands to provide valuable ecosystem services like wildlife habitat, water infiltration, carbon sequestration, recreation, and aesthetic values.
Because it is so important to our production and sustainability, we need to know our rangelands. This requires mapping, monitoring, and managing.
There are a wealth of resources to help map our rangelands. Pasture maps overlaid with vegetation and soil maps help a producer really step back and see problem areas (i.e., over grazed areas, weed problems, etc) or areas with lower than desired utilization. Making and evaluating maps helps producers create grazing management plans and provides reference when you are making changes in fence lines, watering points, or supplement locations. Knowing how to use a GPS unit will help in making maps that can turn into better management. Programs like Google Earth Pro give a free starting point to view rangelands. The NRCS Web Soil Survey is another tool that provides valuable mapping information on soil, ecological site, and forage production.
Vegetation monitoring is often tedious and requires a working knowledge of grasses, forbs, and shrubs. However, knowing the type of vegetation you have and what it is capable of is crucial to better management. Gathering information through monitoring provides data to help set stocking rates, understand areas with heavier than desired utilization, and identify trends in how your management is affecting forage production and species composition. On federal lands, monitoring is one of the most valuable tools to ensure the continuation of grazing on these lands. Having data to support grazing management plans will often make working with federal land managers much more fruitful. Additionally, it will help producers understand their range and, therefore, understand what it is capable of producing. University Extension, BLM, private consultants, and other resources can provide information on how to set up a monitoring system.
Once maps have been created and studied and monitoring procedures have been established it is time to manage. People have had a role in influencing rangeland condition, good and bad, in the west for centuries. We are part of it. As I said before, we often ask a lot of our rangelands, but if we manage them properly they will provide. It is up to us, as producers, to make sure we are creating sustainable and productive rangelands for the future.