Monitoring your natural resources and land condition

Print this page

Natural resources (soil, vegetation, water and biodiversity) can be monitored as simply or intensively as you choose. It is something you already do as you drive through paddocks, noticing the condition of vegetation and soil cover and using this to guide decisions on when and where to move livestock. To decide what and how to monitor, you need to be very clear about why you are monitoring.

Why do you monitor and record information about natural resources on your property?

Land condition is a term that describes the current state of the soil, and/or the diversity and cover of vegetation, usually as a relative measure (ie good, poor). Monitoring land condition involves making repeated observations about the soil’s condition and vegetation cover/diversity to understand changes over time. Understanding the trends in land condition over time can then assist in making management decisions about stocking, such as what type of stock, how many, where and for how long.

How do you use/could use land condition monitoring on your property?

A monitoring plan

Key steps in developing a monitoring plan include:

  • What information do you need to help you make decisions?
  • What areas need to be monitored?
  • What methods will work best - what is easy to use, time efficient?
  • How often should each area be monitored - regular intervals or during critical periods, such as after rain events or during drought?

Once you have answered these questions, you are ready to choose a method and apply it, and then use the information to assist in making decisions (otherwise, why do it?)

Using photo standards to determine land condition

The challenge for assessing land condition in the arid zone is to distinguish seasonal changes from long term change. When determining land condition one of the key features to look for is long term resilience. To assess long term change, we are interested in:

  • the general trend in condition
  • is it moving from good to fair (downward trend) or upward from good to excellent?
  • what are the triggers for this movement or trend?
  • is it related to grazing (something you can control) or is it seasonal conditions?

Even though a site produces annual and seasonal ground cover during wet years, the reality is that with lower densities of perennial pasture species, the land is less likely to be productive during dry years and will have longer recovery time following drought.

Condition classes (see Table 1) are based on assessment of natural resource attributes such as:

  • plant species composition; weeds and density/cover
  • plant productivity
  • soil erosion status

Land trending from Condition Class A towards Condition Class B can revert back to Condition A with an appropriate change in management, eg lowering of stock grazing impact. 

However, reversing Condition C to Condition B may require a more significant change in management, depending on seasonal conditions (see Table 1).

Land in Condition C is also susceptible to rapidly falling into Condition D. Condition D will not revert back to C with just a change in management, at least not in the short term. For improvement to occur with Condition Class D requires time and management intervention e. rehabilitation/revegetation and no grazing pressure.

Table 1: Attributes for visual definition of land condition at a site (and basis for developing photo standards)

Attribute

Excellent

(Class A)

Good (Class B)

Fair (Class c)

Poor (class D)

Plant species composition; weeds and density/cover

Maximum diversity of annual and perennial species for the land type

High concentration of palatable plant species

Perennial species of various ages and regeneration apparent

Very little to no evidence of introduced (weed) plant species

Density is high, shrubs touching or overlapping

Some reduction in diversity of palatable and susceptible perennials

Some unpalatable plants and presence affecting growth of palatable species

Increased proportion of shorter lived species. Perennial species of various ages

Minimal number and cover of introduced weed plant species

Shrubs more sparse, clear spaces between shrubs (space equates to 1-5 shrubs)

Significantly reduced diversity and cover, density and/or regeneration of palatable species

High concentration of unpalatable plant species

Establishment of less preferred or unpalatable species, includes some weed species

Shrubs very sparse, space between equates to 6-12 plants

Dominance of annual and ephemeral species and perennials with relatively low palatability

No regeneration of desirable perennial species, existing stands degenerate

Dominance of weed species

Isolated shrubs, if any at all

Plant productivity

At full potential, sustained productivity

Some fluctuation; lower in drought

Annual communities maintain litter cover but will not sustain production in dry seasons

Reduced overall; high productivity in good seasons only

Low in drought (fluctuates markedly with season)

Impaired productivity, very seasonally dependant, low or non-existent in dry seasons

Soil erosion status

No erosion (other than natural features or processes)

Plant and litter cover protect soil from wind and water in all seasons

Minor or slight erosion evident

Increased susceptibility of soils to erosion in dry seasons

Moderate erosion evident

Reduced density and cover of perennial and litter increases susceptibility of soils to erosion

Severe erosion

High susceptibility of soils to erosion in all seasons

Extent of past erosion renders site susceptible to further soil movement if grazed at any level

See Tool 3.01 for an example of photo standards for arid zone chenopod shrub lands. 

Photo points

Photo points can be established as monitoring sites in paddocks to provide an indication of trends and changes in pasture and resource condition. Revisiting these sites enables the development of a photographic sequence providing an objective record of change at a site.

Through combining short term and long-term records our understanding can be improved and future grazing practices can be adapted to suit these trends. Stock records for each paddock, together with climatic information, observations of grazing on certain plants, germination events and other factors, can provide a valuable record that will assist in decision making to achieve more sustainable use.

Changes in the soil and vegetation components may follow:

  • a fire
  • extreme seasons, either wet or dry
  • change in soil surface cover
  • defoliation of shrubs (eg bladder saltbush)
  • establishment of new plant seedlings
  • death of shrubs or trees
  • invasion by unpalatable plants or weeds
  • a change in grazing regime.

See Tool 3.02 for instructions on how to set up photo points.