Montana State University Extension Range Management Institute
Rangeland comprises approximately 70% of the land area in Montana, and is found in every Montana county. Ranches with rangeland livestock production enterprises, an industry that contributes a significant amount of income to Montana’s economy, rely heavily on rangelands to support their livelihood. Cattle and calves, the agricultural industry that relies predominantly on rangelands, brings in $1.1 billion in cash receipts in Montana, and in today’s economy, where input costs of production on farms and ranches are extremely high, rangeland pasture-based livestock production provides a relatively low-input option for raising livestock. In addition to being a critical component of sustainable agriculture in Montana and the West, rangeland livestock production systems that are managed correctly can naturally maintain plant community health, soil integrity, water quality, and wildlife habitat.
As a result of a focus group that convened at Montana State University Extension’s 2010 Annual Conference, this project was initiated to provide in-depth training for Montana Extension field faculty and specialists in rangeland ecology and management principles. Ultimately, the goal is to provide baseline knowledge for educators to more effectively assist agricultural producers in more effectively and efficiently management of the rangelands they rely upon for their livelihood. With increased knowledge of basic and in-depth rangeland concepts, educators can more confidently provide sound, research-based information to livestock producers regarding the potential, limitations, capacity, and function of their rangeland ecosystems. Adoption of this information can serve as a vector to help ranchers more sustainably manage their native pasture resources and will help ranchers maintain their livelihoods by maximizing their production in a low-input system. Helping ranchers sustain their resources and their livelihoods ultimately contributes to a reduction in land fragmentation, which contributes to an overall increase in landscape health and helps preserve the heritage of rural communities in Montana.
The initial goal of this project was to host three, 3-day workshops across Montana targeting primarily Montana State University, Extension agents, range technicians of federal agencies (NRCS, BLM, FS), and ranchers interested in improving their level of knowledge of rangeland ecology and management concepts and techniques. With the approval of a one-year, no-cost extension, two additional goals have been added to the scope of the project. The first is to host an additional workshop in conjunction with Montana State University’s Agriculture Extension Update in late May/early June 2016. The second new goal is to host a ‘Level 2’ training for all that participated in one of the four initial trainings. The Level 2 training will be designed to provide in-depth training in rangeland ecology and management concepts, application of those concepts, and techniques participants can use to assist their clientele with practical resource management decisions.
Initially, our goal was to teach a minimum of 60 participants during the three workshops and to include a minimum of 75% of Extension field faculty who have responsibilities directly relating to rangeland management (i.e., agriculture, natural resources responsibilities). In addition to this, we now hope to include 75% of participants who attended an initial workshop in the Level 2 training.
Initial workshops include two days of classroom learning and one day of field demonstration, led by the Project Coordinator, Project Participants, and agency educators. The classroom portion of the workshops will focus on five main subject areas, with multiple topics under each main subject area. The five subject areas will include: 1) Rangeland Ecology Principles, such as defining rangelands; rangeland uses; plant community characteristics and dynamics; basic plant physiology; plant-animal interactions; and seasonal changes in forage nutritional value, 2) Rangeland Management Principles, such as setting realistic ecologic and economic management unit goals and considering limitations; plant identification; the importance of timing, intensity, frequency, duration of grazing; understanding factors that affect animal distribution; and setting stocking rates, 3) Management Tools to Improve Efficiency, such as grazing systems; water development; fences; and other improvements, 4) Rangeland Metrics and Monitoring, such as quantifying plant community characteristics; determining forage production of a pasture; measuring herbaceous and woody disappearance; and long-term and short-term monitoring techniques, and 5) Current and Emerging Issues on Rangelands, such as the debate over continuous versus rotational grazing, impact of wolves and grizzly bears on rangeland distribution and animal health; and the implications of the Endangered Species Act on rangeland management. Level 2 workshops will include more hands-on and in-depth approaches to measuring and evaluating vegetation in the field, determining stocking rates, developing grazing plans, and integrating rangeland management into whole-operation planning.
In the field, local ranchers will provide field sites for demonstration and we will provide the opportunity for hands-on learning. We will view various field sites where diverse approaches are successfully being implemented on rangeland livestock production enterprises and will practice rangeland metrics. Additionally, a goal of the project leaders is to create and compile a set of comprehensive resources for each participant to have as a reference as well as a set of field equipment for participants to take back to their work stations. Our intent is that the resources and equipment, coupled with knowledge and increased confidence in the subject matter, will serve as a catalyst for program implementation at the county level.
After workshops are completed, a mentoring network will be developed and implemented. Mentors will be identified during the Level 2 workshop by evaluating participants’ levels of expertise and confidence around rangeland management concepts. Mentors will be asked to be available to other educators in their area as a long-term resource. Tangible products of these workshops will be curricula, a reference notebook for each participant, and field supplies for each participant. Non-tangible products will be increased knowledge and confidence and partnerships among Extension, federal agencies and ranchers.
Short-term outcomes include increased knowledge of rangeland ecology and management concepts of educators; increased confidence of educators to teach and apply these concepts; and networking among educators. Our goals are to achieve “knowledge gained” by a minimum of 75% of participants and that at least 50% of participants have an increased level of confidence teaching and applying these concepts.
Medium-term outcomes include an increase in the incidence of educators teaching rangeland ecology and management concepts to producers and land managers in their county, as well as producers and land managers adopting management practices as a result of interaction with educators. Our goal is that each of the participants will increase the number of times they teach these concepts annually and that we can document client implementation of strategies.
Long-term outcomes of this project include maintained or improved rangeland and pasture conditions and grazing capacity; greater soil stability, high surface water quality; healthy watershed function, and quality wildlife habitat; reduced financial stress on producers by reducing need for them to lease additional grazing; increased calf weaning weights; improved quality of life for agricultural producers and rural communities by maintaining open space in ranches and minimizing the potential for land fragmentation. Because major land change as a result of changes in management takes greater than three years to observe, the full spectrum of these outcomes may not be achieved during the life of this project. However, our goal is to see documented improvement in grazing strategies by producers that will eventually lead to improved rangeland ecosystem function and improved quality of life for agricultural producers.
To date, three workshops have been held, including a training in both the Western and Eastern MSU Extension Regions if Montana and one training on the MSU Bozeman campus in conjunction with the 2015 MSU Extension Annual Conference. Agents participated in both classroom and field components during the workshops. Participants learned basic rangeland ecology and management principles, discussed current issues, and were taught how to use field equipment used for rangeland applications. Each participant returned to their duty station with a complete set of field equipment.
The scope, intent, and outcomes of this project have been presented at the National Association of County Agricultural Agents conference in Sioux Falls, South Dakota and at the International Society for Range Management Annual Meeting in Corpus Christi, Texas. A poster presentation highlighted the successes of this project at both meetings.
Project coordinators collaborated to submit a request for a one-year, no-cost extension for the grant. Our belief is that we can expand the positive impacts of this project with the ability to use the remaining funds for another year. Coordinators have been meeting to discuss the final ‘initial’ workshop, as well as to craft the Level 2 workshop, which will culminate in more well-informed MSU Extension faculty possessing knowledge and skills to effectively assist rangeland users in their counties and to mentor additional Extension faculty in neighboring counties, creating a network across Montana.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
Scores on pre- and post-workshop tests indicated that knowledge gained by participants increased by an average of 15 percentage points by the end of the three initial workshops. We were able to document that we exceeded our target of a 50% increase in confidence among participants to teach and apply the concepts presented at the workshops.
Additionally, qualitative information indicates that Extension faculty are applying concepts they learned through the workshops. We have received reports from participants that they had greater confidence in addressing client questions pertaining to rangeland resources and effectively applied concepts they learned to local natural resource-related events and issues. Increased faculty confidence has enhanced institutional engagement for land-grant university resources and practitioners of resource stewardship.
One participant extended the knowledge she gained from the workshop to a local working group. She commented, “Just a feather in your hats but by having the Range Institute I felt I was better prepared to present last night and had the tools to put together the presentation.” She also indicated that the presentation promoted positive, useful dialogue among a previously contentious group of participants.
Participants have also indicated a high level of interest in multi-county programming around rangeland management topics. An important component of multi-county programs includes the initial stages of a mentoring component of the project, where agents experienced in rangeland ecology and management concepts will work with new agents or agents with a limited amount of rangeland ecology and management experience. This network will be fostered through more in-depth training of participants in the Level 2 workshop.
MSU Granite County Extension Agent
Montana State University Extension
PO Box 665
Philipsburg, MT 59858
Office Phone: 4068593304
Extension Range Management Specialist
Montana State University
PO Box 172900
Bozeman, MT 59717
Office Phone: 4069945601