South Dakota Grassland Coalition

By Sandy Smart

March 2022

the trail boss

by Charles M. Russell, is the logo of the Society for Range Management (SRM).

This famous painting depicts the cowboy watching over cattle as they are driven up a valley. It is easy to look at the cowboy and imagine his job is to oversee the cattle drive. Another interesting viewpoint could be that the trail boss is also on the lookout for good grass to find for the herd. One of the foundations in range management is to know the various rangeland plants. As a good ‘trail boss’ you need to know how plants respond to grazing. If they are palatable for livestock? Or, if they could potentially be harmful to livestock?

Plant identification

One of the first things we teach to young people and in South Dakota we have been doing this through Rangeland Days for 37 years. Rangeland Days is a annual two-day event, sponsored by the South Dakota Section of SRM, open to 8 year-olds through high school students. Students learn to identify 122 common range plants from grasses and grasslikes, forbs, shrubs, and trees. They are required to learn their life span (annual, biennial, or perennial), season of growth (cool-season or warm-season), origin (native, introduced, or invader), and ecological resource rating (desirable for prairie grouse food or cover, and cattle food).

We set up practice plant lines, marking individual plants with a flag (pictured right), to show the common plants in various stages of growth. Since the annual contest is held in mid-June, many warm-season grasses have not yet flowered. Thus, it is really important to teach students how to use vegetative characteristics rather than relying on what the seed heads looks like to identify plants. If you want a challenge, attend the National Land and Range Judging Contest in Oklahoma City. The people that set up this contest often remove parts of the plant, mimicking a grazed plant, to make it more difficult to identify. Thus you really need to know your plants to win this contest. Once students build this foundation, they are ready to judge South Dakota rangelands for livestock and wildlife values. This SDSU Extension publication is available online at: https:// It is hard to manage something you know little about. Knowing how to identify rangeland plants is the first step in practicing good rangeland management.  

Source: SDGC Newsletter

Join our Mailing list!

Get all latest news & be the first to know about upcoming events.