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Tips for ecological land management

Monitoring the ecological state of and changes in your farmland 
is of value to demonstrate proper land stewardship

Farms and ranches rely heavily on nature and ecological processes to produce food and to support our own families. Nature is quite an amazing entity and for the most part will try to do everything she can to protect us from our own mismanagement. In other words nature is resilient and covers a lot of our management mistakes.

The ecological account

Just as it is important to track our financial position, it is also important to measure and track our ecological position. A lot of times Mother Nature covers our managerial butts with a very good line of credit, but we can’t run a sustainable business while growing an ecological debt. We want a positive balance in our account with Mother Nature’s bank, not bounced cheques.

As the public concerns over natural resource use grows, it is becoming increasingly important to demonstrate a positive and hopefully growing ecological balance that is occurring under our leadership. This is beneficial for the public but it is also beneficial for our own businesses. In many cases the public is actually willing to pay us for some of these ecological goods and services provided from well-managed ranches, but they want verification that they are receiving what they pay for.

This is one of the primary reasons why tracking our ecological bank account is so important. Hopefully we can see the why, but the how can be overwhelming.

Monitoring program

The first step in establishing any monitoring program is determining where and what to measure. Our operation uses a standardized process developed by Land EKG in which we measure rainfall, soil cover, plant growth, species composition and biodiversity. This sounds complicated, but in truth a reading takes very little time and provides a lot of useful feedback.

Ideally measurement locations should be representative of the entire pasture, or in some cases may represent fragile or damaged areas. They also need to be accessible, as the sites will be read on a regular (annual) basis. Recording rainfall, at least in Western Canada is also important, as it is the limiting factor in grass growth and many ecological processes. We also use site specific tools such as riparian health assessments for areas along creeks and wetlands.

pasture

The Photopoint “after” photo compared to the image at the top of the article.
photo: Supplied

Once the locations are set, the next step is to establish a baseline reading. This is an objective measure of where things are at right now. This is extremely important as it is the “opening balance” and lets us know if our management decisions are making ecological deposits or withdrawals.

We use two basic types of readings in our operation. The first is a transect, where we establish a line in the pasture along which we take a series of standardized readings and photographs. The second is a photopoint in which we return to the same spot each year and take a series of documentation photographs in a complete circle. By returning to the same sites and comparing the data and the photos year over year and comparing it with our management and rainfall we get a very clear idea of the impact of our management decisions and whether we are making withdrawals or deposits to our account with nature.

Documentation important

I know many very good range managers that assess conditions as part of their nature, but documented, repeatable measures of our ecological impacts are becoming more important as we face continued pressure from the public to explain our actions as producers, challenges from issues such as endangered species legislation and profit margins that may be under pressure from rising land and input costs.

If you would like more information on Land EKG monitoring please visit www.ekgcan.com. For wetland and riparian tools take a look at cowsandfish.org. If you are interested in learning more about ecological goods and services have a look at alus.ca.

About the author

Contributor

Sean McGrath is a rancher and consultant from Vermilion, Alta. He can be reached at [email protected] or (780) 853- 9673. For additional information visit www.ranchingsystems.com.

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