GIS is an abbreviation for Geographic Information Systems. In practical terms GIS is the application of the science of location and all things related. In the last several years significant advances on global positioning and high tech farm equipment has leveraged this technology to increase yields on grain farms, more efficiently apply fertilizers to growing crops, plant our fields more accurately, and sample soils and map nutrient needs at scales previously unthinkable. So what does that have to do with you?
As grazers, much of the innovation and automation that has swept across production agriculture has left you behind. Sure the technology has crept into hay making equipment, and there are precision soil sampling rigs and spreader trucks that have real utility in a grazing environment, but is there an opportunity to learn more? I think there is.
As farmers and ranchers understanding the patterns your livestock travel can be a useful tool when managing your forage resources. You see if only there was a way to mark locations of your cattle or horses or sheep or goats or lama or alpaca or whatever across your pasture and estimate the time they spend in different locations you could learn a lot. Don’t fret… There is.
In GIS, when we track something a common technique is to use a GPS unit (small device that tracks satellites) to record your location at set intervals. We call this laying a track line or dropping points. When you’re done, you have the set of data points scattered across the landscape showing where you were. As fate would have it your livestock are equipped with the same feature… They call it pooping. As livestock wander around they are free of the awkwardness we humans find about specific bodily functions in polite company. It seems cows for example follow Forest Gump’s lead. Like he said, when I had to go…I went, and so do they.
Figure Out Where Your Animals Spend Their Time
All ranchers know the first step to being a better rancher is getting to know your land, walking you ground and know what it is that you’re farming. As you walk around pastures and hay meadows take note of where the cow pies lie. Cow pies are like those points we drop on a track line with a GPS unit, and in the same way we spatially analyze that data you too can learn a lot from the spatial pattern of your cow pies. Now you don’t necessarily need to run a Getis Org Gi*analysis to determine if the poo is spatially autocorrelated, or look of clusters or hot spots, but your eyes can see patterns as well as just about any software (actually we have a tendency to overestimate the presence of patterns).
Managing Where Manure Is Left
So all of this is well and fine, but how can it make you more money? Animal redistribution of nutrients across a landscape is the first and sometimes the only application fertilizers some ground see for years at a time. This has several impacts on your farm. Over time you get hot spots where nutrients are higher if cattle spend disproportionate amounts of time in one place over another. The obvious challenges are watering troughs, fly control equipment, shade trees, mineral feeders, anything they can scratch or rub against, and bottle necks (gates). First walk your ground. Do you see increases in the frequency you encounter the dropped points (Cow Pies)? Is the manure concentrations you observe around fixed features a little higher or a lot higher? If you see a pattern, you have an opportunity to make an improvement. Here is a list of 5 ways to improve the spatial distribution of you animal based fertilizer application (spreading the poop sans tractor).
1. Utilize rotational grazing.
Force livestock to move over ground and move on.
2. Think strategically when installing water.
Fixed forever installations are nice, but they attract attention and hot spots ensue. If you must build one take care to locate it so the accumulation of nutrients will have minimal environmental impacts. When possible develop mobile watering stations that you can relocate as you move through your rotational grazing paddocks.
3. Let your salt block and round bale feeders guide them.
Don’t be that guy with one salt feeder that has sat in one spot for the last 43 years, or the rancher with an 18 inch tall round bale feeder (because the rest of it has sank in the mud since 1996) move them around and position them opposite of water to make livestock move across the ground. It also helps if you place these things in parts of the pasture that need nutrients and maybe leave them there a little longer.
4. If you have a drone, use it.
Here is a chance to write off a toy for the kids (don’t quote me on that to the IRS). Those fancy drones little jimmy or Suzy wanted for Christmas with the camera, is a great thing to take pictures from above. If you have a good rotational grazing set up and you want to do actual spatial analysis, all you need is real time phots where you can see the Pies from the sky. After that any person with decent GIS skills (contact your local Extension office for assistance) should be able to convert the photos to maps and scientifically look for poo clusters.
5. Work with your local NRCS, or State Ag agencies to make maps of every paddock you rotate into and soil sample them independently.
There is an old saying “knowing is half the battle”. I don’t remember who said it, but it’s very true. Manage your nutrients to maximize your per acre productivity. More yield in forage equals more pounds of meat or milk or fiber.
Sure some of you have very large farms and some of these ideas will not translate perfectly to your situation. However, that does not mean you should not consider placement of gates, mineral feeders, round bale feeders, pick and choose what trees to fall, and what to leave standing so you can decide where they get shade water and shelter.
Manage your farm or it will manage you.