Current Progressive Cattle digital edition

Candid camera: Photo monitoring for ranchers

Amanda Gearhart Published on 24 February 2013
Posting a photo board with the date, pasture, a plot name, bearing, and GPS or legal description.

Why should you monitor your rangelands? We monitor because we need to have a road map about where we have been and where we are going.

The easiest and simplest way to provide a permanent record is by using photo monitoring. Photo monitoring is simply taking pictures of rangeland, pastureland or other grazing lands.

Installing a permanent marker

We monitor for several reasons, including:

  • Documenting the current conditions
  • Documenting change over time
  • Documenting catastrophic events such as wildfire or drought
  • Investigating a potential problem or opportunity

There are several aspects to consider before going to the field. First, the equipment needed (see below).

You should also think about when you are going to take the photos. Ideally, multiple sets of photos should be taken, such as before and after grazing.

A washer welded to rebar

If only one set is taken, it is imperative that photos are taken on the same date every year. Pick a date that is easy for you to remember, such as the Fourth of July or a summer birthday.

A question I most often hear is: How many photos should I take? The simple answer is: As many as you can manage.

You don’t want to have so many sites that you can’t get to them all in a reasonable time period (such as one day).

On the other hand, you don’t want to have so few that they don’t really show the extent of your operation.

At a minimum, you should have three upland and three riparian photo locations. After you decide on your locations, be certain to mark them on a map.

Setting up a photo plot

This may seem like an unnecessary step, but it can be very difficult to recall all photo locations.

At every photo location, at least one permanent marker should be installed. The type of marker is up to you, and there are several types available.

Federal land management agencies have used angle iron and rebar that stick up above the soil surface about six to eight inches; however, these may be hazardous to tires and animals.

Some ranchers have used washers welded to rebar that can be pounded in at ground level, painted rock piles and potato diggers cut in half.

Photo plot

Researchers have used road construction whiskers (non-biodegradable plastic markers) and capped rebar.

What you use is more about what works for you and your operation than the physical product.

It is recommended to establish a plot more than 25 feet from a road, use a witness post (such as a steel T-post) directly alongside the road and use your plot marker at the plot.

A word of caution: We strongly recommend not using T-posts as your plot marker because cattle and wildlife are attracted to them.

Take two photos at every photo location. One photo should be of the landscape and have a distinct landscape feature that will help you re-locate the precise photo location every year.

Photo monitoring of Sawtooth Creek 1976

One photo should be of the ground in about a three-foot-by-three- foot square. The ground photo should have a unit of measurement included for size reference, such as a yardstick.

Folding squares (available at hardware stores) work really well and will fit in a saddlebag or the center console of a pickup.

Every photo you take should include a photo board that includes the date, pasture, a unique plot name, bearing, and GPS or legal description.

It is also important to know the events of different years.

While remembering outstanding events (such as a record rainfall event in July of 1988) is easy, remembering the minor fluctuations from year to year is a little more difficult.

Photo monitoring of Sawtooth Creek 1997

Use a field notebook to make notes about:

  • Weather
  • Weeds
  • Grazing
  • Rodent activity
  • Flooding
  • Fire
  • Major plants
  • Invasive species
  • Wildlife (actual or evidence)

The more notes you make, the better supported your photos will be.

Develop film or download photos from all digital devices as soon as you get back from the field.

The record you just took is all that you have. Print out your digital photos and be certain to keep a backup copy separate from your original copies.

Store your field notebook with your photos or create a three-ring binder with both notes and previous photographs.

There are many arguments for not taking pictures, but in reality, photo monitoring is cheap insurance. The most important thing you can do is to keep it simple.

Photo monitoring of Sawtooth Creek 2011

Even if you start out with only six photo locations, you can always add more locations later. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Your local extension educator, NRCS, BLM or Forest Service range conservationists are fantastic resources and usually willing to help. A few final suggestions:

  1. If your photo plot is more than 25 feet from a road or trail, use a witness post (T-post) to mark where to stop.
  2. If you are using federal lands, check to see if photo plots already exist (most have them).
  3. Put your views in perspective. If a photo point already exists at a stream crossing, retake that photo, then step back and take a photo of the whole reach of stream.
  4. Don’t be afraid to put photo plots in areas that aren’t in perfect shape (especially those visible to the public); these areas will be the ones that will show you the most change over time.
  5. The most important photo is the first one you take, so start today.  end mark

Required photo monitoring equipment

  • Camera (film, digital, smart device)
  • Photo board (with date, pasture, plot, bearing, and GPS or legal description)
  • Notebook (for making notes in the field)
  • Map
  • GPS or compass


PHOTO 1: Getting ready to post a photo board that includes the date, pasture, a unique plot name, bearing, and GPS or legal description.

PHOTO 2: Installing a permanent marker.

PHOTO 3: Some ranchers have used washers welded to rebar that can be pounded in at ground level.

PHOTO 4: Setting up a photo plot

PHOTO 5: Photo plot

PHOTO 6, 7, 8: Example of photo monitoring of the Sawtooth Creek through the years.

amanda gearhart

Amanda Gearhart

Rangeland Extension Specialist
University of Idaho