MANAGING FORAGE AND GRAZING LANDS FOR MULTIPLE ECOSYSTEM SERVICES
Location: Pasture Systems & Watershed Management Research
Title: Pasture monitoring at a farm scale with the USDA-NRCS pasture condition score system
Submitted to: Journal of Soil and Water Conservation
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: May 26, 2009
Publication Date: November 1, 2009
Citation: Sanderson, M.A., Goslee, S.C., Gonet, J.M., Stout, R.C. 2009. Pasture monitoring at a farm scale with the USDA-NRCS pasture condition score system. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. 64:423-433.
Interpretive Summary: Recent developments in grassland-based livestock production systems have created a need for new methods of assessing and monitoring pastures. The Pasture Condition Score (PCS) system is an assessment tool for pastureland enrolled in conservation programs. In this study, our objective was to determine how pasture condition scores varied within farms and determine the variation in pasture condition scores within and among grazing seasons. We monitored pastures on five farms in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York for three years to evaluate the system. We demonstrated that pasture condition scores vary among and within grazing seasons mainly in response to weather. Our data suggest that assessing pasture condition at the start of the grazing season, during stressful growing conditions, and near the end of the season would provide timely information for making pasture management decisions. Pasture condition scores also vary widely within farms primarily because of management differences among pastures used for different classes of livestock. Grouping pastures managed and used for different classes of cattle (e.g., heifer, dry cow, or holding pastures) and monitoring representative subsets, may reduce the monitoring work load. Some pastures had inherent site characteristics that would limit efforts to improve condition scores through management. In these instances, evaluating indicators against an ecological or site-type reference condition may be more useful than striving for “ideal” conditions.
The Pasture Condition Score (PCS) system, developed by the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), is an assessment tool for pastureland enrolled in conservation programs. Ten indicators of vegetation and soils status are rated on a 1 to 5 scale and summed to give an aggregate score, which is interpreted for management recommendations. Information is lacking, however, on how PCS results vary within and among environments and farms. We applied the PCS on two farms in Pennsylvania (one dairy, one beef), two dairy farms in New York, and an organic dairy in Maryland. All pastures (25 to 63 per farm) on each farm were evaluated according to PCS methodology in spring, summer, and autumn of 2004, 2005, and 2006. Aggregate PCS scores ranged from 30 to 40 (indicating some improvements were needed to pasture management) and were relatively stable within management recommendation categories across seasons in 2004 and 2006. The PCS scores in 2005, however, plummeted (below 25 to 30; indicating major management changes to prevent degradation) on the Pennsylvania and Maryland farms because of drought. Pastures used for heifers and dry cows or as wintering areas often had lower scores than other pastures. Typically, these pastures were on less productive soils, steep slopes, and were stocked intensively. There was much overlap among individual score categories for some indicators, which suggests that fewer but broader categories would simplify the system for farmers. The monitoring workload could be reduced by assessing representative subsets of pastures managed similarly or in similar landscape positions instead of all pastures on a farm.