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April 16, 2001
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Scientists Lasso Computers to Help With Ranch Plans

By Marcia Wood
April 16, 2001

Dry, rugged ranges of the American Southwest--when managed skillfully--can support healthy herds of cattle, sheep and goats. Leathery shrubs and coarse grasses of the region also enable other animals, like pronghorn antelope, whitetail deer, quail, jackrabbits and small pigs called javelinas, to thrive.

To help keep the region's grazinglands--and ranchers' profits--in good shape, scientists with the Agricultural Research Service in Arizona and New Mexico and their colleagues in Mexico are collaborating in a unique new project. The scientists want to make two different decision-making aids easy and convenient for ranchers to use when they sit down at a computer to update and revise their ranch-management plans.

One of the aids is a computerized model called MODSS that ARS hydrologist Jeffry J. Stone and others in ARS are building. Stone is based at the ARS Southwest Watershed Research Unit in Tucson, Ariz.

Pronounced "modes" and short for "multi-objective decision support system," MODSS helps ranchers look objectively at options for solving land-management problems. In turn, specialists at USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service are working to computerize their resource planning model. Called SWAPA+H, it's pronounced "swap-uh" and stands for "soil, water, air, plant, and animal resources plus humans."

Ideally, ranchers would use SWAPA+H to learn of practical solutions to any conservation-related problems on their rangelands, such as erosion or decline of a plant species that's a favorite with livestock. After that, they would turn to MODSS to look at and weigh the possible impact of each potential solution on each of the natural resources covered in the SWAPA+H model.

MODSS is already computerized. Plans call for computerizing SWAPA+H, too, so that it could be downloaded from the Internet. The current issue of the ARS monthly journal,Agricultural Research, tells more.

ARS is the chief scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.