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Conducting a Ranch Inventory – Part 1

November 28, 2016

Conducting a complete ranch inventory is a perfect time for ranch managers to take an in-depth look at their operation. Completing a ranch inventory is the first step in the strategic planning process, but it also helps provide a current overview of the operation. During times of belt-tightening, it’s imperative to make sure all the resources of the ranch are being utilized as efficiently as possible.

Categorizing Resources
A ranch inventory should include 4 categories of resources available to the ranch operation:

  1. Natural.
  2. Financial.
  3. Human.
  4. Physical.

In addition to providing a current overview of the operation, we can complete a balance sheet, provide a summary of collateral for loans or operating notes, and assist with future decisions as finances are used to help determine if the operation can accommodate a son or daughter returning to the ranch.

We also may discover soil erosion problems or find pastures and underutilized rangeland when completing an inventory of the natural resources. Do stocking rates equal current carrying capacity of the ranch? A thorough inventory of the natural resources will tell us.

A thorough ranch inventory should allow someone not familiar with the operation have a good working knowledge of all the resources available to effectively manage the ranch. Gather all documents, maps and records that provide a clearer picture of the operation.

Mapping Natural Resources
Acquiring maps of the ranch is the first step to begin a natural resource inventory. Maps will allow a manager to get a 10,000 foot overview of the operation. The maps should include locations of corrals, fences, water sources, etc. Stocking rates with carrying capacities and ecological sites should also be detailed on the maps. Maps can be hand-drawn from FSA (Farm Service Agency) crop-reporting maps or professionally done by the NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service). If neither of those sources are available, a ranch manager can develop their own maps by using the NRCS Web Soil Survey. If additional information or instruction is needed on web soil survey, please refer to iGrow Corn: Online Soil Survey Information – Web Soil Survey (WSS).

Major Land Resource Area Maps

MLRA (major land resource areas) maps from NRCS offer great information for baseline rangeland production, historical weather and precipitation records. They are especially handy if no previous records are available from the ranch.

In addition, MLRA maps will also have the state and transition model for that particular MLRA. The state and transition model identifies different vegetation states that may exist on that site and provide ideas on how to move the site to more desirable states and how to avoid moving the site to an undesirable state.

Ecological Sites

In order to get the correct MLRA maps for the ranch, a manager must determine what ecological sites are present on the ranch. Acquiring correct ecological site maps allows a ranch manager to accomplish this.

An ecological site is a distinctive kind of rangeland based on similar:

  1. Surface soil depth
  2. Soil texture
  3. Available soil moisture
  4. Land slope
  5. Precipitation
  6. Soil fertility and salinity
  7. Distinctive kinds of native vegetation

Common ecological sites in South Dakota include:

  1. Sub-irrigated
  2. Overflow
  3. Sands
  4. Sandy
  5. Loam
  6. Dense clay
  7. Thin upland
  8. Shallow
  9. Claypan
  10. Clayey

Putting It Together

  1. Acquire maps for the ranch.
  2. Determine your ecological sites in your pastures from maps.
  3. Find your correct ecological site for the MLRA your ranch is in.
  4. Conduct field visits to your pastures and determine what state your pasture is in.
  5. Determine your stocking rates and what direction you want to manage your pasture.

For example: If the pasture I am searching is in northern Tripp County, SD. My pasture is in MLRA 63B. If my pasture is a clayey ecological site, I will select the clayey file for MLRA 63B from the South Dakota NRCS website. This file will contain all the historical weather and precipitation records along with baseline rangeland production estimates in lbs/acre.

At this point, I need to select the proper “state” my pasture is in from field visits I conducted to my pasture. If I determine my pasture is mainly smooth bromegrass and Kentucky bluegrass, the pasture is in an invaded state according the state and transition model. If I want to manage my pasture to get more native grass species established, I follow the arrow from the “invaded state” to the “native/invaded grass state.” The arrow represents a “threshold” our pasture must cross with management. The “LTPG” stands for long-term prescribed grazing. This is a management strategy to move our pasture across that threshold. Such as having stocking rates that match our current carrying capacity. For assistance calculating stocking rates and carrying capacity please refer to Using the ‘Grazing Stick’ to Assess Pasture Forage.

It is also true vice-versa; if our pasture is mainly western wheatgrass and green needle grass and is in the native/invasive state, non-use and overgrazing will push this pasture across that threshold back into the invasive state.


Slower winter months ahead on the ranch, are an excellent time to work on a ranch inventory. The first attempt will be the most time consuming. Each passing year the ranch inventory will become more detailed, accurate and useful.

Having a list of all available resources to ranch will allow a ranch manager complete a SWOT analysis. SWOT stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. SWOT is the second step in the strategic planning process.

Accurate ranch inventories also improve communication with family members if they are absentee landowners. A yearly inventory will show other family members not on the ranch that the “family” resource is being taken care of.

Part 2 will cover the other three areas of the ranch inventory. Financial, human, and physical resources.

Source: Sean Kelly, South Dakota State University