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Monitoring our Impact on the Land

There is more than one way to know a place. There is more than one way to see a landscape. There is more than one way to understand land health. And there is more than one way to sense if a landscape is healthy.

Every day of work on the ranch, we see different parts of this expansive landscape. Some days, just a few miles of fence behind the wheel of a truck. Some days, a sweeping zig-zag of tracks covering an entire 3,000-acre pasture from the seat of a motorcycle. Some days, 20 miles of winding cattle trails from the back of a good horse.

Being out on the land every day gives us the chance to practice a kind of watching. Noticing what the grass looks like now, compared to what it looked like yesterday, or a week ago, or before we moved cattle into this pasture. What it looked like in the dormant season, before the first big rain of the summer. Or when we briefly passed through it horseback on the way back home at the end of a long day; or when we stopped to let the bulls water in that low spot along the creek, before the last leg of their journey into the corrals.

These are all different ways to monitor the land to assess whether or not the human signature of our management scribbled in the soil is regenerative or destructive.

But our daily visual observations of the land can only go so far. The majority of a grass plant lies underground, in the root system. Nitrogen and phosphorous, the key nutrients that limit plant growth in grasslands, are invisible to the naked eye. When it rains, you can observe whether water runs off or is absorbed into the soil, but much of the process is occurring beneath the surface. For the majority of the time, water is moving about underground, as vapor in the air, or through the roots of plants. You can watch a beetle bury a perfect sphere of cattle dung, but the microbes that turn this dung and leaf litter into nutrient-rich topsoil are microscopic in size. These things can’t be observed through the informal observations we make on a daily basis. These ecological processes–cycles of water, cycles of nutrients, cycles of plant growth and decay–are largely impossible to see directly, much less measure.

This is where formal, more scientific monitoring systems come into play. Land monitoring allows us to measure these ecological processes indirectly, by tracking indicators of what’s going on beneath the soil surface. At Ranchlands, we use a monitoring system called LandEKG, which provides a database for us to record, store, and track the data we acquire from our land monitoring system. Typically, our formal monitoring happens once a year in late summer or early fall. This time of year works best for recording data because it gives us a consistent marker of what the land looks like around the end of the growing season. There are around 15 monitoring points each at the Chico and Zapata, and we go to record data at each of these same points every year to track how they are changing.

This year, I headed down to the south end of the ranch to cover a few of the monitoring transects with Sam and Amy. It was a chilly, grey morning, and Amy and I met Sam at the first point for the day, just east of the creek in the Southeast Chico pasture. Ideally, the monitoring points we select are in representative areas of the pasture. In other words, a transect would not be placed in an exceptional location that is not utilized the way the rest of the pasture is. Right next to a water tank where cattle tend to loaf, in the middle of a road that is disturbed by vehicle traffic–places like these are not good locations to use as indicators of the health of a whole pasture. Some pastures are so large that they include several distinct ecological zones with different soil characteristics and plant communities and thus include more than one monitoring point. Sam starts by taking photos of the hoop-shaped plots along the transect line at each location. We kneel down to the ground to take a closer look at the transect. These 4.8 square-foot circles of land are but one microscopic pixel within the larger picture of the 87,000 acres of the ranch. In fact, each transect plot covers just 1 billionth of the total land area we manage at the Chico. But today, these microcosmic ecosystems are our world. We spend so much time covering vast stretches of country across the expansive pastures of the ranch, it’s easy to forget all that is going on right at our feet. When you take the time to stop and observe, to look down, a whole world opens to the eyes.

At the scale of each clump of grass, each fragile stem of annual forb, and each oxidized shred of leaf litter, the prairie becomes a jungle of astounding diversity. We take note of all signs of life we see in the hoop: ants trudging along across the soil crust, weaving through the forest of grass stems and tiny rocks; a grasshopper waiting patiently for the perfect time to flee the grass canopy; a few dried pieces of scat, probably from a mule deer passing through, we guess. All indicators of a healthy food web.

The work of recording the hard data comes next. We take note of which species of plants call this hoop home: which types of grasses, shrubs, forbs, and succulents, and which are most dominant. We record what fraction of the ground is bare, what fraction is covered at the basal layer (at the soil surface), and what fraction is covered by the canopy, or the crown of extending grass leaves and shoots. We note what fraction is covered by living plants, leaf litter, or by rocks.

Observing ground cover gives us valuable indirect information about the cycling of water, something that is not always so easy to observe visually. While water will run off bare ground more easily, leaf litter, grass canopy, and rocks (anything that breaks the force of water falling to the ground when it rains) help to slow water down, retain it, and make sure it infiltrates into the soil. Similarly, litter cover serves as an indirect indicator of how nutrients are cycled within the microclimate of the transect.

By looking at indicators like species composition, leaf litter, and ground cover over several years, we gain valuable insight into the ecological processes that determine how prairie ecosystems function, and, by extension, about the productivity and overall health of our land. When we combine the monitoring data with the record of our grazing plan for each season (how long and when a pasture was grazed, and by which herd) and our rainfall record, we can determine, at least quantitatively, how our management is affecting the landscape. While it’s easy to talk about using cattle and planned grazing to regenerate and improve the land and the whole watershed even, precise monitoring is what allows us to tell the story of how the land is changing, and to be confident that we are indeed achieving our management goals. Take the Golf Course pasture at the Zapata Ranch, for example. As the creative name suggests, the Golf Course pasture had been, in fact, a proper golf course under the previous owners of the ranch. What was left behind in what became the Golf Course pasture was an over-irrigated monoculture of non-native turf grass, peppered with invasive weeds. So when Ranchlands was brought on to manage the property almost twenty years ago, we got to work restoring the golf course area to native grassland the best way we know how: with cattle.

For several summers, 88 cow-calf pairs were rotated between two-acre paddocks within the golf course, grazing each section for only two to six hours at a time before being moved. This sort of short-duration, high-intensity grazing encourages water infiltration and mineral cycling, breaks up dead plant material, and along with occasional flood irrigation, encourages new growth. Because it’s such a sensitive area, and an interesting study pasture to track through its restoration, the Golf Course pasture has been monitored closely every year. The effect of the intensive grazing project is quite remarkable. What was once a glorified lawn is now host to a diverse assemblage of native cool- and warm-season grasses, shrubs, and even a prairie dog town.

For someone who goes out on the land at the Zapata and sees the country every day for many years, the dramatic transition that occurred on the golf course may be obvious. But to a visitor or guest whose untrained eye might not be so acquainted with the nuances of grass communities in the high desert, our land monitoring data from the Golf Course pasture may serve to relieve any doubts. The Golf Course is now a beautifully diverse pasture, where horses and cattle graze between the mounds of prairie dogs, where raptors hunt for their next meal, where a lattice of deep root systems builds up the soil and protects it, where the only reminder of its previous state might be its name. And with the land monitoring data we have compiled we can be sure: our cattle did that.

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