Monitoring forage on working ranches provides valuable information
The Sandhills Rangeland Monitoring Cooperative (SRMC) is a rangeland monitoring project that seeks to link ranchers, scientists and the public in a network of knowledge exchange about rangeland health and management in the Nebraska Sandhills.
The goal of the project is to better understand what influences the plant community in the Nebraska Sandhills and help guide management efforts to protect this vital part of Nebraska.
The Nebraska Sandhills provide valuable grazing land and plentiful ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, wildlife habitat, diverse plant communities, hydrologic cycles, erosion control and natural beauty. Collecting and evaluating rangeland monitoring data is critical to understanding the influence of management practices on plant communities and soil health, as it can help identify clear objectives.
In 2021, SRMC had 14 participating ranches spread across the Sandhills with a diversity of ownership and grazing management strategies.
Ranches were grouped into two regions, western Sandhills and central/eastern Sandhills, based on the Natural Resouces Conservation Service groupings of the precipitation zones in the Nebraska Sandhills Major Land Resource Area (MLRA). The western region is in the low-precipitation zone, which averages 14 to 17 inches per year. The central and eastern regions are in the medium precipitation zone with 17 to 22 inches per year and the high precipitation zone with 22 to 25 inches.
How monitoring is conducted
At each ranch, three upland monitoring sites located on hill tops and slopes were established within three study pastures. At each pasture, photo points were established, and ground cover and vegetation species composition data were collected at 99 different individual locations using a 40-centimater square quadrat. Additionally, soil-health measures were collected from six soil cores from zero to eight inches deep and sent to a lab for soil biology and chemistry analysis.
Ranch managers of the participating ranches were interviewed by telephone. These interviews are repeated each year to gather ranch management information and note any changes to management from year to year.
Plant community dynamics
Species composition data from three years – 2019, 2020 and 2021 – indicate the plant community dynamics tend to shift as one moves across the Sandhills regions. The western region (low-precipitation zone) contained a slightly different plant community than the central and eastern (or the mid- and high-precipitation zones) Sandhills.
For example, it was more common to see sand dropseed and blue grama on ranches in the western Sandhills, while stiff sunflower and little bluestem were more frequent in the central and eastern Sandhills.
Considering this information over the long term and comparing it with past and future data can help understand what influences the plant community in the Nebraska Sandhills and help guide management to protect it.
This article was written by University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) Range/Forage Management Specialist Mitch Stephenson and Research Project Manager Kayla Mollet, and is courtesy of the UNL’s Panhandle Research and Extension Center.