Collaborative monitoring for ranch resilience and social-ecological sustainability in central Montana

Progress report for FW21-372

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2021: $29,000.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2023
Host Institution Award ID: G350-21-W8613
Grant Recipient: Milton Ranch
Region: Western
State: Montana
Principal Investigator:
Bill Milton
Milton Ranch
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Project Information


For an individual ranch, sustainable ranching requires adequate information and understanding to adapt management practices and improve ecological health, economic efficiency, and human well-being over time. Many ranchers pay for and participate in monitoring efforts to document successes and failures and understand how their management correlates to changes on the ground. This data collection and interpretation can improve management and the sustainability of their own operations, but the data are often siloed by topic and held in private. When taken a step further, the sharing and discussion of monitoring data across landowners can lead to learning and improved management at a broader landscape scale. The research questions explored in this project focus on how to make monitoring and management data more useful through collaboration and learning at all steps of the monitoring, analysis, and decision-making process. The Range Monitoring Group (RMG) in central Montana has worked to address these questions for four years. Currently, RMG includes a pilot group of three ranchers (including Bill Milton) who have multiple years of monitoring data and are willing to share the data among themselves, and eventually with the larger RMG membership. The ultimate outcome of this project will be to improve the utility of monitoring and data sharing to better understand the ecological, economic, and social impacts of various management practices. Because this project is led by a group of ranchers, dissemination of results will happen through immediate local networks as well as through regional and national non-profit partners.

Project Objectives:

The research objective of this project will be to:

  • Operationalize monitoring indicators and information about management practices that are consistent, useful, and feasible across landowners, and ensure that monitoring is interpretable and repeatable over space and time
  • Explore relationships between management practices and ecological impacts
  • Develop and document data analysis and visualization approaches that make data actionable for decision-making that improves rangeland and ranch sustainability

The educational objectives of the project will be to:

  • Engage ranchers in self-education and a collaborative process of data sharing and discussion to better understand their own monitoring data
  • Co-create a process to look at monitoring data at a landscape scale to support decision-making

Activity 1: Group discussion on currently gathered measures rangeland health, land management practices and economic sustainability and what other information is needed to support rancher decision-making

Activity 2: Test and refine indicators and monitoring approaches through collaborative in-person monitoring (pasture walks, etc.)

Activity 3: Analyze ecological indicator and land management data together

Activity 4: Develop data management and visualization tools and processes to facilitate shared interpretation of monitoring data 

Activity 5: Hold group discussions focused on better understanding monitoring data and analysis

Activity 6: Document the discussion process around shared data, t in a way that can be shared with other stakeholders in the region (presentations, a hand book)



















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Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Casey Coulter - Producer
  • Peter Donovan - Technical Advisor
  • Dr. Kristal Jones - Technical Advisor
  • Chris King - Producer


Materials and methods:

The overarching research question driving this project is, how can we connect monitoring data and management practice information to improve decision making and sustainability? We are specifically interested in exploring which monitoring indicators are commonly gathered and useful to ranchers, the best ways to view and visualize the data to support decision-making, and the possible impacts on ‘triple bottom line’ sustainability that sharing monitoring data across the landscape can have. To address these research questions, the project has the following research objectives:

  1. Operationalize monitoring indicators and information about management practices that are consistent, useful and feasible across landowners, and ensure that monitoring is interpretable and repeatable over space and time
  2. Explore relationships between management practices and ecological indicators
  3. Develop and document data analysis and visualization approaches that make data actionable for decision-making that improves rangeland and ranching sustainability

Objective 1: Operationalize monitoring indicators and information about management practices that are consistent, useful and feasible across landowners, and ensure that monitoring is interpretable and repeatable over space and time

This objective has drawn on legacy and newly collected monitoring data focused on three topical areas: soil health (including carbon, infiltration rates and structure), vegetative cover (presence and abundance of native and invasive species, bare ground), and grassland bird presence (four key species will be the focus). For each of these domains, the three participating producers have data for the past three to five years (2015-2020), and will continue to gather these data in 2022. In 2021, most did not monitor due to extreme drought conditions. The data will continue to be collected using the same protocols that are currently in place, which are developed and implemented by a variety of private and non-profit partners. In addition to these data, the agricultural professionals on this project have worked with the producers to document and generate data about their grazing and land management practices as well as economic indicators. We are exploring existing frameworks to gather these data, including those developed by Point Blue for the grazing and land management practices and by California FarmLink for the economic and business structure indicators. All of the data, new and old, is being gathered in whatever form it currently exists and entered into the site, which includes long-term, password protected storage and the ability to visualize data on maps. Extensive metadata will be included to ensure repeatability over space and time.

Objective 2: Explore relationships between management practices and ecological indicators

Led by agricultural professional Kristal Jones, we plan utilize inferential statistics to look at relationships between management practices and ecological indicators. If possible, we will specify small (~1 acre square) areas across each producer’s operation that include the location that a specific indicator was documented and include each as a single observation. Analysis will look at the relationships between grazing practices and indicators, with separate analyses for each category of indicators (birds, soils and vegetation). For each producer, each year there are roughly 36 vegetation observations, 11 bird observations, and 5 soil observations. Statistical analyses will therefore vary but will likely include linear regression, Chi square and t-tests for differences between locations.

Objective 3: Develop and document data analysis and visualization approaches that make data actionable for decision-making that improves rangeland and ranching sustainability

Objective 3 provides the link between research and education, because the project team is documenting the data analysis and visualization approaches that are most useful and intelligible for producers, and that can make data actionable. The process of experimenting with different parts of the data to use as well as ways to interpret the data constitute the research portion of this objective. The agricultural professionals involved in the project have presented producers with various tools, visuals and combinations of data, and the full group then discussed which seem to be more or less useful, and why or why not. Kristal Jones facilitated these conversations and has treated them as informal focus groups, utilizing qualitative research methods to capture the process through which data is made actionable. The qualitative data will be analyzed using social science approaches like process tracing, which can help explain how change happens. In this case, the change we hope to observe is the process of making data actionable, which in turn will lead to different decisions being made and ultimately (although outside the time frame of this project), measurable impact on sustainability.


Research results and discussion:

In year one of the project, we completed work on a previously existing collaboration with master’s students at Yale University, which was focused on defining and operationalizing a list of monitoring indicators that reflect ongoing work with RMG partners (WWF, TNC, etc.). Throughout summer and fall of 2021, the technical advisors worked with the three participating landowners and the monitoring professionals who work with them to organize and describe the data that has been collected in the recent past, and to highlight any ongoing mismatches in approach to collecting monitoring data. The core RMG group, including the three participating landowners, the technical advisors and a core group of collaborators spent substantial time reflecting on the types of data and measures currently being collected by ranchers and the professionals who conduct monitoring on their land. This process included many group conversations about specific indicators, the overall monitoring approaches used by ranchers and professionals who work with them, and the purpose of these data. We also began to explore the kinds of grazing data that ranchers currently collect, both written records and the use of digital tools like MaiaGrazing or LandPKS.

One of the consistent challenges identified by the group is the small spatial scales over which monitoring occurs and the challenge of having few data points over space and over time from which to make decisions. As data was standardized and fully digitized for incorporation into shared data platform (described in detail in Objective 3), it became clear that there are not enough consistent measurements of comparable indicators to generate meaningful statistical results. Instead, the group began to explore ways to pair on-the-ground monitoring data with remotely sensed and modeled data related to ground cover, evapotranspiration, precipitation and other related metrics of landscape health and stress. The figure below shows the kinds of descriptive relationships the group has begun to look at, with the goal of moving into statistical analysis using time for space in year 2 of the project.

ADA per unit rainfall graph

As the RMG group was engaged in ongoing conversation about the data that exists and what it means to producers on the ground, we were also engaged in an iterative process of visualizing the data in a variety of ways on the platform,, developed by Peter Donovan, one of the two technical advisors. At the end of Year 1, we have 134 individual observations across the land managed by the three participating landowners ingested into the platform. We have one custom map for each of the three landowners that includes several layers, generated from both monitoring data (like bird counts) and remotely sensed data (like length of green). We also have a shared space for discussion and reflection, a blog of sorts associated with the RMG project on, which currently has 8 posts. All of these aspects of allow for different types of data analysis and visualization, and the RMG group has been reflecting on how to interpret and utilize the different types of visualizations. A learning meeting held in December 2021 focused on what an be learned from different types of visualizations and information sharing.

In year two of the project, the RMG group undertook another year of monitoring using a common core set of indicators as described above. We continued to look at ways to triangulate and integrate across remotely sensed products and on-the-ground monitoring. The project team was bummed to learn that the Rangeland Analysis Platform (RAP) was no longer being actively supported, and we are glad to have recently learned that USDA-ARS will be picking up RAP going forward. Products like these have been very helpful to provide a broader landscape scale view from which the RMG group is very interested in learning, especially as we have come to realize the large gap between landscape-scale thinking and transect and point-based monitoring. 

In April 2022, the RMG group met in-person at the King Ranch in central Montana. A post summarizes that field day and meeting. Some highlights included a discussion about soil infiltration tests and how to use them in the context of monitoring. An RMG member who is not apart of the WSARE core group shared plans for soil health testing for summer 2022, which is being supported by a GLCI grant. Much of the groundwork that the RMG group did during year of the WSARE grant went into the planning for the GLCI award, and it has allowed more ranchers in the region to participate in the RMG group. All of their soil sample results are posted to as well.

Also during project year 2, the RMG group engaged several private technical service provider rangeland monitoring professionals to learn about the costs associated with having a consistent monitoring protocol across several ranchers with the goal of looking at data at a landscape scale. Overall these were very positive and collaborative conversations, and they emphasized the convergence toward a list of indicators that everyone involved seem to think are most interesting and useful. At the same time, the costs associated with hiring these TSPs are prohibitive for most if not all ranchers participating in the RMG group.

Participation Summary
3 Producers participating in research

Research Outcomes

Recommendations for sustainable agricultural production and future research:

There is a workforce capacity issue for rangeland monitoring - a lack of trained professionals working across the landscape. Relatedly there is a resource issue. For TSPs to make it work financially they need to charge more than ranchers feel they can pay (or that they see the benefit from paying). There is a tension that we have been exploring in the RMG group between building more capacity for ranchers themselves to conduct simple monitoring efforts and the very really limits of time and energy that ranchers and their families have. Taking on one more thing might not be doable, and yet there are not human or financial resources to bring in outside capacity. In addition to collecting the monitoring information, there is also a need for more capacity for analysis and interpretation. A recommendation is to work this kind of capacity into the remit of more field offices - NRCS, cooperative extension, etc. - since they provide networks of support to producers.

1 Grant received that built upon this project
4 New working collaborations

Education and Outreach

2 On-farm demonstrations
7 Webinars / talks / presentations
2 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

10 Farmers participated
8 Ag professionals participated
Education and outreach methods and analyses:

Most of the educational and outreach activities conducted by the RMG group in year 1 were focused on the core group of participating landowners and collaborators. These included an in-person field day in June 2021, an in-person discussion of data visualizations in December 2021, an in-person consensus-building conversation January 2022, and monthly meetings from May 2021-February 2022. Bill Milton, lead landowner, also gave several presentations on RMG approaches and lessons learned, over the course of 2021 and early 2022.

In year 2, the RMG group held an in-person meeting in April 2022, which included field-based monitoring as well as discussion around data, and an in-person meeting in October 2022 to reflect on data visualizations. Throughout 2022, there were monthly phone calls among all RMG supporters (both landowners and other types of partners) to reflect on what we have been learning about what kind of support is needed to sustain monitoring across a landscape. All in-person meetings were open to anyone in the RMG network (about 150 individuals living and working in the central Montana region receive the emails).

Most of the presentations and outreach were on panels and in other settings and formats for which there are not slides or recorded presentations. However, after most field days and on-ranch demonstrations the RMG group created posts in to reflect on the shared learning. Attached here is a timeline of all activities, as well as links whenever possible to mention of Bill. In addition, there are three posts from that are not public but that will be made public in the near future.

Post from 4 22 2022 Post from 12 3 2021 RMG King Ranch, 2022.4.22 RMG engagement

Education and outreach results:

One thing that we have found over the course of this two-year project is that it is hard to put a finger on the 'why' of collaborative and landscape-scale monitoring. Individual ranchers monitor to improve their bottom line, and for compliance and market access. None of these require a larger vision for impacting the ecosystem. The learning community has been much more of a draw and a generative space than the framing of having a shared protocol and the ability to look at data over a wide scale. T

3 Farmers intend/plan to change their practice(s)

Education and Outreach Outcomes

Recommendations for education and outreach:

Two key takeaways from our education and outreach activities: The first is that producers, especially those doing things a bit differently than their neighbors, crave a network of others who are thinking about, reading, trying similar things. The RMG group has become that network for many producers. The second is that without data on management decisions that can be parsed (literally by a machine and figuratively into meaningful categories), the core questions of ranchers are hard to answer. It seems like most digital tools that track management decisions can't take in monitoring data, and vice versa. A platform that could do both could provide a starting point for learning and sharing information in a way that starts to put all of the pieces together.

10 Producers reported gaining knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness as a result of the project
Key changes:
  • soil water infiltration

  • secondary data

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.