By Jill Burkhardt
What is on your fall To-Do list? Harvest? Second (or third) cut hay? Bringing cattle in from pasture? Preg checking cows? Fall is not when one would normally think about range management, yet by doing a few simple measures of the rangeland in the fall, you can plan better for the coming spring.
This spring, before the cattle went on pasture, I placed a range cage — an instrument used to restrict access to cattle — in one of my less productive pastures. The cage I used was pyramidal, approximately 40 inches tall by 72 inches wide. The pasture I chose to monitor is particularly hilly with clay pan soils, has a history of heavy gopher population, and in the drought of 2002, was hit pretty hard. For these reasons, I felt this would be the best place to instal the cage to see how much potential grass has to grow.
For this particular cage, I plan to keep it in the same location and use it as a monitoring spot. I also intend to clip the forage and rake litter from inside the cage and from a spot outside near the cage. From the clippings, I hope to identify how much the pasture is capable of producing under cattle exclusion conditions (inside the cage) and under grazing pressure, and the litter will give me a measure of what is left-over to provide mulch and bare ground cover.
Monitoring is a very simple task that anyone can do, and with smartphones, it is made even simpler. It involves going out to the same point every year — carefully noted or marked by GPS or flags — and taking a few photos, to immediately print, date and file in a binder with other range notes. On each pasture I take two photos: one directly off the ground and a second one of the general landscape. The spot you chose to monitor in each pasture should be random, or as close to random as possible. In one of my pastures, my one monitoring spot is the 2nd hill from the internet tower; on another pasture, it’s 20 paces south of the 13th post west of the water pen (very random). If you have an area of concern in your pasture, then do a separate monitoring point there as well. I have a few areas of heavy gopher use, and do separate photo monitoring points on those spots. Over time you can see changes in the pasture, both good and bad, that will help you determine your next years’ grazing plan.
In the fall after the cattle make their last rotation through a pasture I like to walk through it, observe what I see, and take notes. This fall, I made some observations about the field with the range cage. For example, the south end of the pasture had more use (this is the part of the field closest to the water pen). I noticed the difference of the grass height on the inside of the cage versus the outside. When you place an object in the middle of a pasture the cattle are automatically drawn to it, or so it seems; use around the cage was a bit higher than the rest of the field. Finally, I noticed the north end of the field did not have a lot of use.
While assessing pasture conditions I also note any new weeds that have popped up over the summer. This helps plan for next year’s weed control plan (spray, handpull, mow, etc). The notes I take on field use, help me to get a mental picture of how the cows grazed the field, and if there is anything I can do next year to either decrease utilization in the heavier used areas, or increase utilization in the lighter used spots. I take into consideration current watering locations-both natural and troughs-to plan for pasture rotations into the coming year.
With everything on your fall “To-Do” list, fall range work may be just another task to some. But taking some time to do simple and quick fall range monitoring can pay off in next year’s grazing season.
— Jill Burkhardt has a B.Sc in Range Management from Montana State University. She has worked on both sides of the border as a range manager on public lands. Jill, her husband, Kelly, and their two children have a mixed farm near Wetaskiwin, AB where they raise commercial cattle.