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Weathering the Storm – Inventory Where You Are (Part 1)

This series started last week with an overview of what Sean will be sharing with us to help us weather the current economic storm. Here’s Part 2, courtesy of iGrow.org.

Conducting a complete ranch inventory is a perfect time for ranch managers to take an in-depth look at their operation. Completing a ranch inventory is the first step in the strategic planning process, but it also helps provide a current overview of the operation. During times of belt-tightening, it’s imperative to make sure all the resources of the ranch are being utilized as efficiently as possible.

The slower winter months ahead on the ranch, are an excellent time to work on a ranch inventory. The first attempt will be the most time consuming. Each passing year the ranch inventory will become more detailed, accurate and useful.

Categorizing Resources

A ranch inventory should include 4 categories of resources available to the ranch operation:

1. Natural
2. Financial
3. Human
4. Physical.

In addition to providing a current overview of the operation, we can complete a balance sheet, provide a summary of collateral for loans or operating notes, and assist with future decisions as finances are used to help determine if the operation can accommodate a son or daughter returning to the ranch.

We also may discover soil erosion problems or find pastures and underutilized rangeland when completing an inventory of the natural resources. Do stocking rates equal current carrying capacity of the ranch? A thorough inventory of the natural resources will tell us.

A thorough ranch inventory should allow someone not familiar with the operation have a good working knowledge of all the resources available to effectively manage the ranch. Gather all documents, maps and records that provide a clearer picture of the operation.

Mapping Natural Resources

Acquiring maps of the ranch is the first step to begin a natural resource inventory. Maps will allow a manager to get a 10,000 foot overview of the operation. The maps should include locations of corrals, fences, water sources, etc. Stocking rates with carrying capacities and ecological sites should also be detailed on the maps. Here are some map options for you:

Maps can be hand-drawn from FSA (Farm Service Agency) crop-reporting maps:


They can be professionally done by the NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service):


If neither of those sources are available, you can develop your own maps by using the NRCS Web Soil Survey.


(For additional information or instruction is needed on web soil survey, please refer to iGrow Corn: Online Soil Survey Information –  Web Soil Survey (WSS). There’s also a helpful On Pasture article here.)

There are other maps that will help you consider the resources on your land to help you choose the best management strategies.

Major Land Resource Area Maps

MLRA (major land resource areas) maps from NRCS offer great information for baseline rangeland production, historical weather and precipitation records. They are especially handy if no previous records are available from the ranch.


In addition, MLRA maps will also have the state and transition model for that particular MLRA. The state and transition model identifies different vegetation states that may exist on that site and provide ideas on how to move the site to more desirable states and how to avoid moving the site to an undesirable state.


Ecological Sites

In order to get the correct MLRA maps for the ranch, a manager must determine what ecological sites are present on the ranch. Acquiring correct ecological site maps allows a ranch manager to accomplish this.

An ecological site is a distinctive kind of rangeland based on similar:

  1. Surface soil depth
  2. Soil texture
  3. Available soil moisture
  4. Land slope
  5. Precipitation
  6. Soil fertility and salinity
  7. Distinctive kinds of native vegetation

Contact your local extension, NRCS or Conservation District office for help determining your ecological sites.

Putting It Together

Here’s an example of how I would go through this process and what I might do with the information I gathered.

  1. Acquire maps for the ranch.
  2. Determine your ecological sites in your pastures from maps.
  3. Find your correct ecological site for the MLRA your ranch is in.
  4. Conduct field visits to your pastures and determine what state your pasture is in.
  5. Determine your stocking rates and what direction you want to manage your pasture.

For example: If the pasture I am searching is in northern Tripp County, SD. My pasture is in MLRA 63B. If my pasture is a clayey ecological site, I will select the clayey file for MLRA 63B  from the South Dakota NRCS website. This file will contain all the historical weather and precipitation records along with baseline rangeland production estimates in lbs/acre.

Now I need to figure out which “state” my pasture using the state and transition model associated with MLRA 63B shown here.


If I determine my pasture is mainly smooth bromegrass and Kentucky bluegrass, the pasture is in an invaded state according the state and transition model. Then, if I want to manage my pasture to get more native grass species established, I follow the arrow from the “invaded state” to the “native/invaded grass state.” The chart tells me that I need “LTPG” which stands for “long-term prescribed grazing.” This is a management strategy to move our pasture across that threshold such as having stocking rates that match our current carrying capacity.

I might also find that non-use of a pasture is an issue for my ranch. For example, if my pasture is mainly western wheatgrass and green needle grass and the chart shows me that it is in the native/invasive state and non-use or overgrazing will push this pasture across that threshold back into the invasive state.

So Why I This Helpful For Weathering the Storm?

This inventory will first give you a list of all the resources you have available on your ranch, what kind of condition your resources are in, and what you might have to do to improve or maintain them. It can also improve communication with family members if they are absentee landowners. A yearly inventory will show other family members not on the ranch that the “family” resource is being taken care of.

Next we will cover how to inventory three more critical parts of the ranch: financial, human, and physical resources. When our inventory is complete we’ll be able to get started identifying  Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. It’s your SWOT analysis and it’s the step in the strategic planning process that will give you a real look at how to weather the storm.


  • Gates, R.N., B.H. Dunn, J. Davis, A. Arenzo, M. Beutler. 2007. Strategic and Scenario Planning in Ranching: Managing Risk in Dynamic Times. Manual No. EC924. South Dakota State University, King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management, Texas A&M University-Kingsville.
  • Johnson, J., B. Bennett, S. Beavers, B. Duckworth, W. Polk, B. Thompson. 2005. Developing Business Plans for Agricultural Producers. Department of Agricultural Economics, Texas Cooperative Extension, Texas A&M University.



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Sean Kelly
Sean Kelly
Sean is a South Dakota State University Extension Range Management. A Winner, SD native, Kelly grew up working for Tripp County farmers/ranchers. After receiving an ag business associates degree from Western Dakota Technical Institute, Sturgis, Kelly worked fulltime for an area farmer and began building his own cow/calf herd. He returned to school in 2002 to pursue a Range Science degree from South Dakota State University. After graduating, he went on to earn a masters in Ranch Management from Texas A&M Kingsville, King Ranch Institute for Range Management. Before joining SDSU Extension, Kelly worked for Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Montana and Nebraska as a Soil & Range Conservationist.

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