Friday, 28 January 2011

Holistic Land Monitoring - Looking at the Soil Surface

One way to gauge our management practices on the land is to monitor the changes over time. Monitoring will be most effective when one looks for the earliest possible indicators that things are not going as planned. The condition of the soil shows us those early transformations and allows for management changes to be made before the situation worsens.
Choose your method carefully. Areas with little vegetation and wide plant spacing may be best suited by tossing darts and collecting the information from those points. The sparse vegetation allows for easy location of the darts. When monitoring in a densely vegetated location, tossing a hoop may be more appropriate. It's easier to find. Another popular method is to lay down a two hundred foot measuring tape and take readings every fifty feet.
Monitoring is best recorded on paper, but when time is an issue, photos may be taken. Take photos looking straight down. More detail can be seen this way than just looking across the landscape. Still, it is helpful in locating the site later if you have landscape photos that show landmarks.
It is important that there be several data points and although they should be random, they must also be representative of the entire area. If all of your darts or hoops land on the road and not in the field, try again. Pick the worst and the best areas, as well as those in between as your places to monitor.
The monitor sites must have some way to be permanently marked, so you may return at a later date to re-evaluate. To do this, create a map with line of sight landmarks, use a GPS device, measure from a landmark, leave a visible marker, or take photos of the site from different perspectives.
The soil surface gives us the first indication of what is happening in the environment. Looking at plant productivity or animal production is often too late. The soil surface provides clues that are easy to recognize and record. Here are some examples:
  1. Crusting on the soil surface means that there is not enough disturbance of the soil and it will be less permeable to water and air. Seedlings will have difficultly establishing and growing. The crusted soil is hard and may be dark, cracked, or covered by lichen or moss. One way to check is to insert a pocket knife and see if chunks or plates lift up. A healthy, aerated, and crumbly soil will fall apart under the knife.
  2. Next, look for evidence of biological activity. Are there worms or worm tunnels? Are animal droppings present? Do you see insects? What kinds do you see and how many? Are animal tracks found?
  3. How permeable is the soil surface? Pour a measured amount of water on a small area and record how long it takes to sink in.
  4. What kinds and numbers of plants are present? Are they annual plants or perennials? What stage of growth are they? Are they healthy or old? Are seedlings present? Measure, clip and weigh the vegetation to get an idea of productivity.
  5. Finally, a holistic approach requires one to look at the big picture. Stand up and look at the surrounding area. What plants do you find and what is the plant spacing? Are there animal signs? Do you hear birds? Are there signs of soil or water movement and erosion?
Be consistent each time you monitor. You may not know the official names of all the plants, but as long as you have some way to identify them, you can watch for trends. One way is to create your own sample book of the plants you find. Later on you can have them identified.
Holistic land monitoring on a regular basis such as annually will provide some valuable information about how your management is changing the land. The earliest indicators of environmental change may be found at the soil surface and are easy to evaluate.
Sandra M. Matheson, DVM is a rancher, holistic management educator, and retired veterinarian.Innovative resources are available to help ranchers and farmers learn about Holistic Land Monitoring.