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Business planning and resource monitoring help keep ranchers on the land, support the well-being of rangeland-dependent communities, and conserve the rural way of life. An assessment tool can guide producers in use of this information as part of an adaptive management process to continually progress toward sustainable ranch management. Ranchers, and the rangelands they manage, provide commodity, amenity, and spiritual values that are vital to the well-being of ranchers, the communities in which they live, and the nation as a whole. These goods and services include forage for grazing animals, wildlife habitat, water storage and filtration, carbon sequestration, recreation opportunities, and a way of life for rangeland-dependent communities. This project focuses on a subset of indicators that can be modified for use in ranch-level monitoring and business planning, incorporated into an online sustainable ranch management assessment tool that provides sub-scores by resource category and overall. The primary objective is to help ranchers identify and focus on areas of their operations that merit additional effort and attention to improve sustainability. Twelve categories are addressed: soils, water, plants, animals, productive capacities, family resources, cultural resources, technical assistance, socio-economic aspects, business diversification, business planning, and succession planning.
Survey Monkey software was used for pre- and post-assessment evaluations. Qualtrics software was used to build the online sustainable ranch management assessment tool and calculate section and overall scores. Custom software was developed to facilitate secure regional comparisons. Only information from the pre- and post- assessment evaluations will be analyzed. The assessment results are for use by the participating producers, and participants are guaranteed confidentiality. To date, the assessment has been deployed at workshops and exhibits, with project staff and associated producers and contractors available to answer questions and provide assistance. Ultimately, the assessment will be available online for producers to access at will.
Few respondents who participated indicated that they did not intend to make any adjustments to their operations after completing the assessment. Interestingly, a majority of respondents who completed the online sustainable ranch management assessment, noted the importance of the hardcopy guidebook as a follow-up resource. This outcome represents full circle, since initial development of the online assessment tool came at the behest of ranchers who wanted something quicker to digest than the hardcopy guidebook, requesting both the online tool and a comparative scoring system. Now that those requests have been addressed, those who complete the online assessment want the hardcopy guidebook, available on the Sustainable Rangelands Roundtable website. Pre-assessment evaluation responses show that most producers, over 88 percent, believe their operations are sustainable. While a majority of producers, just over 57 percent review their human resources, most operations, 75 percent, do not operate under a formal, written business plan. While more than 73 percent of producers regularly review and upgrade their existing ranch enterprises to identify improvements and potential sources of new revenue, just over half of producers, 52 percent are using financial indicators to evaluate their businesses. In terms of ecological sustainability, most producers, over 70 percent, monitor the ecological resources on their operations. A larger majority, over 82 percent, manage to conserve soils and prevent erosion. Just over 72 percent of producers practice adaptive management, using monitoring information to guide changes in management practices. While slightly more than 60 percent of producers operate under a written grazing management plan, almost 40 percent do not. Online sustainable ranch management assessment tool participants were also asked post-assessment evaluation questions. The primary question was whether the Sustainable Ranch Management Assessment highlighted areas of an operation for potential adjustment or improvement? An overwhelming majority, 95.52 percent of respondents, replied in the affirmative. Less than 5 percent of participants did not find tool to be useful. However, across all areas identified for potential adjustments or improvements, a large majority of online sustainable ranch management participants came away with goals to initiate some changes in their operations.
Response percentages for pre-assessment questions highlight an opportunity for extension educators, technical service providers and consultants to provide information and assistance with use of financial monitoring systems and business planning to assist producers with improving the economic sustainability of their operations. Similarly, these pre-assessment response percentages highlight another opportunity for producers to work with their local extension agents, agency personnel, and/or private consultants to develop written grazing management plans. Post-assessment evaluation responses indicate clearly that the online sustainable ranch management assessment tool is useful in helping producers recognize areas of their operations that may merit further attention or effort. Online access to the sustainable ranch assessment platform equips ranchers and farmers with valuable knowledge and insights about the economic, ecological, and social sustainability of their operations, allowing them to improve their performance. At present, there is not a comparable assessment tool available online, and ability for ranchers to track their progress in the context of others in their region also is unique. Potentially, using the online sustainable ranch assessment platform to evaluate their operation also will increase opportunities to do business with companies interested in sourcing sustainably. Longer term, with knowledge of the ecological, social, and economic elements of sustainability, as well as the skills to track trends, and evaluate outcomes of management activities, producers should be able to implement and communicate this information and ability to the supply chain and the general public, as appropriate. If more ranchers engage in assessment and planning for rangeland sustainability, the ecological, social, and economic health of these ranchers and farmers, and the rangeland-dependent communities in which they live, should improve, conserving a way of life and supplies of rangeland goods and services upon which society depends.