Data collected from four transects using the Land EKG monitoring procedure did not indicate identifiable trends in plant community change. The relatively short duration of the study period and the irregularity of precipitation were factors limiting the potential improvement in forage plant quality and quantity.
The primary objective was to monitor and document the effect of planned grazing by cattle on the subsequent forage quality and quantity of a 500-acre pasture that is also used by elk for winter grazing. Planned grazing is defined as using high-density short-duration grazing that adjusts according to observations of the producer. The intent of the planned grazing is to remove forage during a short period of plant exposure, while leaving enough residual plant tissue to facilitate regrowth after removal of the animals.
Evaluation of the effectiveness of the mineral cycle, water cycle, plant community and solar energy flow was done using the Land EKG range monitoring process. Data were collected from 2003-06 from four, 200-foot-long transects. Progress and photos were taken at four permanent hoop sites, each hoop measuring 93 inches in diameter, on each of the four transects.
The first three transects are located on the pasture and managed with planned grazing. The forth transect is not grazed by domestic animals, but is grazed during the winter by elk and deer. The transects were monitored three times each year: prior to grazing by cattle (early spring), after grazing by cattle (late spring), and at the end of the growing season (late September).
The transects were established in 2003, and data collected that year served as the baseline from which to measure change. We planned to have three years of grazing to measure, but a drought in 2005 interrupted the application.
The data collected do not show definitive trends of change in plant communities in this pasture. Rangeland plant communities require longer time periods to express the impacts of management changes than this study allowed. Between five and 10 years is needed to recognize the full effects of change.
A major factor that limited or inhibited positive change is the precipitation pattern experienced during the conducting of the product. Precipitation data collected from the closest weather station show an annual precipitation of 22.18 inches. The annual precipitation at Elk Heights is estimated to be between 17 and 18 inches.
Data show that in eight of the 15 quarters reviewed, the actual precipitation was below average, once as low as 34% of the average. In seven of the 15 quarters, the actual precipitation was near average or above.
Earlier efforts to measure precipitation were thwarted by the inability to prevent the rain gauge from freezing and bursting. Funds from this grant will be used to purchase a non-freezable rain gauge.
BENEFITS OR IMPACTS ON AGRICULTURE
Our reports on this project and discussions on the procedure used have created interest among producers in the advantages of measuring forage use as a management tool. The process of establishing the four transects and collecting data over the four-year period has involved a number of individuals, providing some of them with monitoring experience they would otherwise not have had.
Outreach activities have focused attention on the value of monitoring and the need for having range and pasture forage use records for the purpose of management and to substantiate the quality of stewardship applied to the range resource. The possibility of losing valuable leases or incurring negative perception/images is several times greater for those producers who have no monitoring records than for those who do.
We believe that over time this project will show positive changes in the plant community, leading to higher populations of desirable plants and increased forage production. The elk will benefit from improved habitat and the cattle from an improved forage base.
Rancher John Eaton said, “The Elk Heights pasture was abused prior to coming under the current management, and it will take more than four years to see significant improvements. Monitoring is the only way we’ll be able to document change and the Land EKG process, which was used in this project, offers valuable information to land managers.”
Rancher Robert Acheson, Jr., said, “I have certainly come to see the advantages of monitoring. The Elk Heights pasture had a sparse population of desirable species, which will take time to change. This was the right approach. We just need more time to see some results. Also, I would like to have seen some seeding to introduce desirable perennial forages to go along with the planned grazing.”
RECOMMENDATIONS OR NEW HYPOTHESES
We recommend that producers maintain monitoring sites for a long enough period that changes in the plant community, in terms of forage quality or production, will have enough time to be expressed. This may require several years in areas with semi-arid climates. Grants for support of similar projects in the future need to have longer time frames due to the length of time needed for biological change to be expressed.
Information on this project has been distributed through articles in newspapers, including the Daily Record, an Ellensburg daily newspaper, and the Capital Press, a Northwest agricultural weekly publication.
Presentations on monitoring and this project were given at several meetings and conferences including: a multi-species grazing conference in Washington, a gathering of six consultant-educators in Washington, meetings of both the local Kiwanis and Lions clubs, the Washington Cattlemen’s Association Convention and a three-day workshop on the Land EKG monitoring program.