New technology helps ranchers maximize grass production
Farmers in the central and eastern U.S. have been using technology to track changes in crop production for decades. Courtesy graphic
for USDA NRCS Working Lands for Wildlife
One out of every three acres in the U.S. is rangeland. Two-thirds of these are privately owned, mainly by ranchers who graze their livestock in the open country of the American West.
Our rangelands produce premium beef, wool and dairy. But it’s the plants that feed these livestock that are the foundation for profitable agriculture in the West.
But ranchers haven’t had a good way to measure how their grass is faring — until now.
The Rangeland Analysis Platform (RAP), developed in partnership with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the University of Montana, allows producers to track changes in the amount and types of plants growing on their property.
RAP is a free online resource that provides data on vegetation trends across the West from the mid-1980s to the present; and it calculates how productive those plants are. A combination of long-term datasets shows landowners how their lands have changed over time, which translates directly into their operation’s profitability.
“We can finally quantify outcomes of rangeland conservation in terms of dollars and cents,” said Tim Griffiths, western coordinator for NRCS’s Working Lands for Wildlife.
BOOSTING GRASS GROWTH
Farmers in the central and eastern U.S. have been using technology to track changes in crop production for decades. As soon as they see that their plant productivity is declining — and revenues following suit — they can take steps to address the limitations and boost productivity again.
RAP provides the same power to ranchers.
RAP can show ranchers the gap between their potential production and the actual production they realize in terms of pounds-per-acre of grass. It helps landowners understand how much they can potentially gain by changing management practices to boost available forage and close the gap.
Landowners can see how their plant production has changed in a single month or over the span of several years. The technology can be used to visualize plant productivity in an area as small as a baseball diamond or as large as several states.
“Basically, RAP can prevent lost revenues by showing producers where their land is less effective at growing grass. It helps ranchers put the right practices in the right places,” said Brady Allred, a University of Montana researcher who helped develop RAP.
TREES ROBBING RANCHERS
One of the main threats to production and profitability on western rangelands is the expansion of trees onto grasslands. From eastern redcedar destroying tallgrass prairie to juniper marching across sagebrush grazing lands, woody species are costing producers millions of dollars in lost forage.
For example, the now-forested property in Nebraska pictured here produced zero pounds/acre of grass in 2014. But in 1985, RAP reveals that same property produced 2,200 pounds/acre of grass — before eastern redcedar consumed the once-fertile prairie.
“Last year, we quantified that western rangelands missed out on tens of billions of pounds of forage due to trees taking over prairies and shrub lands since 1990,” said Dirac Twidwell, rangeland ecologist at the University of Nebraska and science adviser for NRCS Working Lands for Wildlife.
This yield gap, said Twidwell is “costing producers hundreds of millions in lost revenue each year.”
Take the Flint Hills of Kansas, America’s most productive grasslands and the fourth-largest intact prairie left in the world. In 2019, RAP shows that this region produced 21.3 billion pounds of forage.
But RAP also shows that ranchers in the Flint Hills lost another billion pounds of forage in 2019 due to encroaching trees. That adds up to nearly 800,000 round-bales of hay lost last year.
Put in terms of dollars, those unwanted trees cost Kansas producers $8.3 million in lost revenue in a single year.
STEMMING THE TIDE
Using RAP’s satellite imagery, ranchers across Nebraska are burning seeds and saplings before they become trees; and in Kansas, ranchers are using RAP to cut trees across ownership boundaries to restore prime grass grazing lands.
New technology like RAP helps us “help the land” in order to sustain wildlife, provide food and fiber, and support agricultural families long into the future.
-Randall is a freelance writer based in Missoula, Mont. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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