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Monitoring For Money

A seasoned range manager offers a three-step strategy for designing your own range monitoring program.

Ask range scientist Roy Roath why monitoring rangelands is important, and he'll quickly get your attention. “Monitoring is about money,” Roath says.

Roath, a Colorado State University Extension range specialist and range science professor, has been teaching producers how to monitor the resource for more than 20 years.

“Range monitoring is like balancing a checkbook. Your forage base is your capital. Monitoring range tells you where you are and what you have available to spend,” Roath says.

The payoff: the information monitoring provides helps producers make sound grazing management decisions that ultimately affect animal performance.

While Roath's research hasn't looked specifically at the economic payback of range monitoring, he's heard plenty of testimonials to support the effort.

“Producers say, ‘I'd rather give up my vaccination program than quit monitoring,’ and ‘I didn't know ranching could be this easy,’” Roath reports.

But he cautions, “For a range monitoring program to be beneficial long-term, it has to be about managing your business and improving it for your own use.

“Every ranch operator I know is financially challenged. And, the public is culturally and politically challenging ranch operations. So you've got to be a better operator,” he stresses.

That doesn't mean monitoring needs to be complicated. Roath says, “One producer I've worked with has 800 cows and estimates his monitoring program totals a three-day investment over the course of a year.”

In short, Roath says, “Monitoring is about gathering information. It's about building a support group among family and peers so everyone is involved and informed, then utilizing the information and making ranching easier.”

Ready, Set, Monitor

That said, you're ready to get started. Roath says the top priority is to keep your system simple. He offers these three guidelines:

  1. Don't data gather. “This stuff has got to be useful,” Roath says. He advises gathering information to answer one question: Is the forage resource responding like I want it to?

    By answering this question, Roath says a producer will know what management practices need to be changed to enhance animal performance. To get the answer, you'll need to monitor frequency of use, intensity of use and whether or not plants had an opportunity to grow or regrow.

    Roath uses a system called the grazing response index (GRI). (See “Calculating A Grazing Response Index,” page 40.) It simply means determining if you're grazing too long, too many head or at the wrong time of year.

    Roath developed the GRI method specifically to evaluate the effects of grazing on plants.

    The index system assigns point values to each of the three categories, then requires adding them together for an overall rating. The end result is a numerical value that is either positive, neutral or negative and correlates to management on the resource, (i.e., a positive value indicates management is beneficial).

    The Rocky Mountain Region of the U.S. Forest Service adopted this monitoring approach as one of their monitoring methods in their Rangeland Analysis Handbook in 1997.

    The GRI is a simple way to get some complex monitoring information, says David Bradford, range conservationist on the Gunnison National Forest near Paonia, CO. “Producers really take to it. We have the permittees calculate a GRI with their end of the season grazing use report,” he says.

    “The system allows producers to evaluate different impacts,” he says. Management changes can then be made where needed.

    Bradford says other regions of the Forest Service are making plans to include the GRI in their grazing manuals. And, Roath reports that land management agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management in Wyoming and Colorado, the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish and the Colorado Division of Wildlife, are also utilizing the GRI method.

    “Agencies are recognizing this as an appropriate way for livestock producers to monitor range,” Roath says.

  2. Make a challenge/opportunity map. While “inventory” may sound cumbersome, knowing what forage resources you have is a necessary part of monitoring.

    Again, Roath advises simplicity. He recommends a trip through the pasture on horseback after cattle have been moved from an area to assess if grazing was light, moderate or too much. Then color those areas in on a map of the pasture.

    Once done, you'll have what Roath calls a challenge/opportunity map that will immediately show you the impact of your management for that year.

    For example, if one corner of the pasture was over utilized, while the rest of the pasture only had light use, you've got a livestock distribution problem. You may need to do something to entice livestock to other areas of the pasture.

    On the other hand, if the entire pasture is heavily used, it's likely the stocking rate should be decreased.

    Another critical inventory tool is a calendar to track grazing dates, the number and kind of animals in each unit, and average weights of animals if available. Calendars are a good place to track precipitation and weather, too.

  3. Track eat ’ums and no eat ’ums. This, Roath says, means tracking what the animals prefer to eat, and what they don't eat. Then, from year to year, evaluate if you have more or fewer of the plants they like. It's a simplified method for determining if the plant community is changing, Roath says.

“For beginners, it's not necessary to know plant names,” Roath says. “You just need to recognize what plants the animals are grazing and prefer.” With time, he says, most producers learn plant names and characteristics.

To help track changes in plant communities, consider including the following in your monitoring program:

  • Photo points — Photos can be helpful to document what a specific area looks like from year to year or seasonally. But photos aren't the story by themselves, Roath says.

    A photo can show general things — if trails are recovering, if a riparian area is remaining stable, if overall use was light or heavy — but you still need to document some details in writing.

    Roath advises these snapshot tips: set up permanent photo points in representative areas, critical areas like stream banks or riparian zones and/or treatment areas; include written assessments of resource conditions, plant community trends and grazing levels.

  • Cages — A cage can be a small, fenced area or an actual wire cage enclosing a representative area in the pasture to prevent the area from being grazed.

    Cages allow for a quick comparison of how much forage grew versus how much was grazed.

    “I like cages a lot,” Roath says. “It's an easy visual, without taking a lot of data.”

    To give an accurate assessment each year, cages must be moved annually.

  • Transects — Transects allow for a more detailed tracking of changes in plant species composition. Typically, a 100-ft. line is extended in a representative area of the pasture. You then identify what plant occurs at every foot along the transect. When complete, you'll have 100 points along the transect and can calculate the percent of desirable species versus undesirables and compare changes from year to year.

Link The Data Together

As the information you start to collect comes together, Roath says the bottom line is linking range information with animal performance.

“These are additional tools that should be linked with calf weights, herd health and breed back percentages to give you a very complete picture.” Roath says.

“Monitoring is not just about vegetation. It's about linking all the pieces together — vegetation, livestock, economics, even family — to make management decisions,” Roath says.

Colorado rancher Boone Vaughn is one of Roath's range monitoring students. He started his range monitoring program about seven years ago, and he sums his results up with one equation: better range condition equals better animal performance.

Implementing Roath's steps to monitor the range he runs his 500-head cowherd on, Vaughn says he's seen improved cow conception and overall cow performance as well as beefier calf weaning weights.

It's about creating a new level of awareness, Roath says. “Most producers can drive through their cowherd and assess which calf is sick or which ones are gaining well. They need to be able to do the same with their range.”

For more information about range monitoring contact Colorado State University's Roy Roath at 970/491-6543 or e-mail

Calculating A Grazing Response Index

Want to determine if your pastures are stocked with too many head, at the wrong time of year or for too long? To get the answer, calculate a grazing response index (GRI) for the following three categories:

  1. To estimate frequency of use, divide the number of days cattle will be in a grazing area by a value between 7 and 10. (Seven to 10 days are required for a plant to grow enough to be grazed again during late spring or early summer. Use 9-10 days if growth is slower.)

    For example, if cattle will be in a pasture for 15 days and regrowth is average, divide 15 by 8, which equals 1.8, or about 2 opportunities for plants to be grazed (defoliated) within that 15-day period. An index value of +1 to -1 is assigned as follows:

    Number of defoliations Value
    1 +1
    2 0
    3 or more -1

    Plants exposed to three or more defoliations are likely being overgrazed, and the grazing season should be shortened.

  2. To estimate intensity of use, evaluate how much leaf material has been removed from a selected plant species. Assign index values as follows:

    Level of defoliation Percent utilized Value
    Light <40% +1
    Moderate 41-55% 0
    Heavy >56% -1

    Heavy use would likely cause the selected plants to decline in vigor if that level of use were to continue for several years. Hence, stocking rates on areas receiving heavy use should be reduced.

  3. To calculate opportunity — the amount of time plants have to grow prior to grazing or to regrow after grazing — you have to make a judgment call based on the appearance of the vegetation at the end of the growing season. Assign index values as follows:

    Opportunity To Grow Or Regrow Value
    Full Season +2
    Most of Season +1
    Some Chance 0
    Little Chance -1
    No Chance -2

    For example, if at the end of the growing season plants look like they were barely grazed, a value of +2 is appropriate. If plants look like they were used but regrew fairly well, assign a +1. For plants that were heavily used with no regrowth, assign a -2. Areas that have little or no chance to regrow should be grazed at a different season of year.

For an overall rating, add the indexes from all three categories together. The total numerical value will either be positive, neutral or negative, which correlates to management on the resource. A positive value indicates management is beneficial. A negative value indicates management changes should be made.
(Source: Roy Roath, Colorado State University)