Is Plant ID Necessary for Grassland Management?

Is Plant ID Necessary for Grassland Management?

Pasture grasses
Profitable and effective grassland livestock management begins with understanding the forage resource, including identifying the plants in the pasture. Photo credit Troy Walz.

Livestock feed is often the greatest annual cost to producers, making grasslands and grassland management an important component of the livestock industry. Profitable and effective grassland livestock management begins with understanding the forage resource, including identifying the plants in the pasture. To manage grassland profitably, managers must be able to identify what plants are there, understand their nutritional value, what plants livestock prefer to graze, and how grazing and other factors impact each plant.

While this may make it seem like you should be able to identify every single plant in your pasture, this is likely not necessary. Instead, focus on identifying and understanding the important characteristics of core desirable plants and the most common or problematic undesirable plants.

The management goals for the property will determine which plants are desirable. If livestock production is the primary goal, plants with high nutrient quality and greater biomass production are likely the most desirable. The desirable plants can also vary depending on season of use, particularly if management goals include providing wildlife habitat. Resources such as the USDA Ecological Site Description database, NRCS staff, and Extension personnel are available to help identify the plants currently in the pasture and determine what desirable or undesirable plants have a potential to exist there. Plant ID resources are also included below. These resources can also assess if any desirable plants known to exist in the area are absent.

Being able to identify troublesome weeds is also very important. The faster an invasive weed is identified, and action taken, the higher the likelihood of suppressing the invasion. Undesirable plants include state and county noxious and watchlist weeds but may also include over-abundant, low-quality native plants. Review noxious and watchlist weed lists in your state and area, including neighboring states. This is especially important when bringing in hay or feed from another region because of the high risk of introducing noxious or invasive weeds.

Noxious and Watchlist Weed Resources:

If the plant community lacks certain desirable plants or if undesirable plants comprise a significant portion of the community, this may be the result of current management, past management, or conditions such as drought. Developing a planned grazing system that promotes desirable plants by providing a competitive advantage over invasive, undesirable plants will help achieve management goals.

Managing to promote desirable plant health avoids grazing a plant before recovering from a previous grazing event (overgrazing) and prevents growing season grazing events at the same time in consecutive years. These strategies are accomplished using a grazing system that provides grazed plants time to recover before being grazed again. Avoid grazing desirable plants at the same time during the growing season in consecutive years to give desirable plants the opportunity to improve health and productivity.

The opposite strategy can be used to manage against undesirable plants. In general, plants are most susceptible to grazing when actively growing, prior to seed production. This is also when their nutrient value is the greatest. Overgrazing an undesirable plant before seed production reduces plant vigor and the number of seeds produced. The use of temporary fencing can confine animals to an undesirable plant patch and help target grazing to specific plant species by limiting animal grazing options. Be sure to monitor livestock grazing selection before grazing selection shifts from undesirable to desirable plants as availability decreases or undesirable plants set seed.

Plant ID can be used to regularly monitor desirable and undesirable plant abundance in conjunction with monitoring records to track changes over time and assess whether management is having the intended response. Grassland monitoring identifies threats of invasive or undesirable plants providing early detection and the opportunity for rapid response to minimize impact and spread.

Identifying plants is a valuable skill for managing and monitoring grasslands that does not have to be daunting. First, learn to identify the most important plant species, then understand important plant characteristics and how management can exploit them in favor of the operation’s goals. Once you can ID a few key plants, identifying additional plants becomes easier.

Many plant identification publications are available including “Weeds of the Great Plains” and “North American Wildland Plants” that often include characteristics of each plant such as grazing value. Other state and region-specific publications are available such as “Common Grasses of Nebraska,” “Common Forbs and Shrubs of Nebraska,” and “Nebraska Plants Toxic to Livestock,” among others.

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