This question comes to us from an On Pasture reader. It’s a big question. I provided an answer here, but we’d love to have reader input as well, as learning how you do things can be helpful to all of the rest of us.
How I monitor depends on what I’m trying to find out. Sometimes I think about what I’m dissatisfied with in my pasture and then let that help me figure out what my question is and what the best monitoring method will be.
A good place to start is to figure out what my pasture’s potential is. That helps me adjust my expectations to what my best management can help me achieve. There are a couple ways of doing this. If you’re working in the west on rangelands, you can do a rangeland health assessment. This is a process of comparing your pasture to an “Ecological Site” representing how your site should be functioning if it’s at it’s best. This can sometimes mean that you have patches of bare ground with sparse vegetation, because that’s just normal for the place you find yourself. But it can also tell you if your management is changing the site so that it’s not quite meeting it’s potential.
If you’re not working on rangeland, you might start by checking out the Natural Resources Conservation Services soil survey website. This site tells you what the soil is under your pasture and gives you information on the kinds of forage production you can anticipate. Again, if you’re not meeting these expectations, you can consider what the cause is and if you can manage differently to make improvements.
If I want to see changes over time, the easiest tool is repeat photo monitoring. What I like about this method is that it’s an excuse for a nice walk around a pasture masquerading as work. It’s also a sure way of remembering things that I would otherwise not have, or may not even have noticed. Pictures really are worth a thousand words.
If I want to find out how much forage my pasture has, I clip and weigh until I’ve done it enough times that, from experience, I can look out at the forage and have a pretty good estimate of how much forage I have, or how long it will last for the number of animals I’m grazing. Here’s a good explanation of that process. Since this is a pretty tedious process, the Natural Resources Conservation Service created a quicker alternative using a grazing stick. Don Ashford did a nice article for On Pasture about how to use a grazing stick, and we added a link to help you find a stick that’s right for your area. I’ve never had a grazing stick for places I’ve worked, so I have sometimes made guesses about how long a pasture can feed animals. I take before and after pictures using repeat photography and use that to help me calibrate my eye over time. This can lead to mistakes though, so be cautious using my method!
If I want to find out what’s growing in the pasture and how it’s changing over time, I would run transects. Here’s a good description of that method from our friends in the United Kingdom.
And then there’s soil testing to help me find out if my soil has the nutrients and pH to help me grow the best forage. Here’s an On Pasture article describing how to collect soil samples while still having a good time.
Those are a few monitoring suggestions. We’d love to hear from you about what you do and how it works for you. And we’d especially like to know if you’ve got some hacks to make this easier or more fun. Share you comments below, or send us a note here.