Measuring progress through biological monitoring

Doug Warnock


For the Capital Press

Having just returned from a range monitoring seminar, I'm motivated to remind livestock managers of the importance of monitoring as a key tool in effective range and pasture management.

Monitoring allows the manager to track what is happening and to make good decisions based on the condition and health of the plant communities in that particular land base. Spring is a good time to plan your monitoring program for the new grazing season.

"How do you optimize something that is not measured?" says Charley Orchard, founder of Land EKG, an established, respected monitoring program. Orchard emphasizes that monitoring allows managers to make better decisions, which leads to better opportunities and greater profit.

Besides its value as a management tool, a monitoring program also provides a means of documenting the current management when there is a need to defend or explain what you are doing. Livestock producers who lease grazing land, especially public land, are often asked to substantiate their practices to the landowner. Having a good set of records that show positive trends is extremely valuable in these situations.

How do you go about setting up a monitoring program? The first step is to talk to someone with considerable experience, such as a Natural Resources Conservation Service range specialist or an extension educator with range management experience. There are a variety of monitoring programs available, but the more important decision is finding a program that provides the right information to help you manage. So, you must determine which measurements provide the data that is the most helpful to your management.

When evaluating monitoring programs, consider the amount of time and effort that will be required, as well as, what information is provided. Some programs require a significant commitment of time and if the manager cannot allocate that much time, it may be better to hire an experienced person to monitor. Only the individual manager can make that determination.

What should be measured? The most productive measurements include assessments of the four ecosystem processes, i.e., the water and mineral cycles, the makeup of the plant community and its trends, and the solar energy flow. Solar energy flow is a measurement of how well the plant community is utilizing the available solar energy to produce plant growth and development.

The most simple monitoring system is to establish some permanent photo points and take photos every year. The photos coupled with your observations give you a basic evaluation record. Grazing cages, which exclude grazing in a small area, can be used to show how much total plant growth occurred during the grazing season.

Additional measurements can be added to provide a more comprehensive assessment of trends and indications of practices that should be expanded or changed to improve ecosystem health and to increase production. Usually, the health of the land and profit from the grazing go together.

If you do not already have a range or pasture monitoring program in place, now is a good time to begin. See your pasture and range management specialist.

Doug Warnock, retired from Washington State University Extension, lives on a ranch in the Touchet River Valley where he consults and writes on ranch management. He can be contacted at

Recommended for you