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Monitoring climate impacts on annual forage production across U.S. semi-arid grasslands

December 21, 2021

The ecosystem performance approach, used in a previously published case study focusing on the Nebraska Sandhills, proved to minimize impacts of non-climatic factors (e.g., overgrazing, fire, pests) on the remotely-sensed signal of seasonal vegetation greenness resulting in a better attribution of its changes to climate variability. The current study validates the applicability of this approach for assessment of seasonal and interannual climate impacts on forage production in the western United States semi-arid grasslands. Using a piecewise regression tree model, we developed the Expected Ecosystem Performance (EEP), a proxy for annual forage production that reflects climatic influences while minimizing impacts of management and disturbances. The EEP model establishes relations between seasonal climate, site-specific growth potential, and long-term growth variability to capture changes in the growing season greenness measured via a time-integrated Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) observed using a Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS). The resulting 19 years of EEP were converted to expected biomass (EB, kg ha−1 year−1) using a newly-developed relation with the Soil Survey Geographic Database range production data (R2 = 0.7). Results were compared to ground-observed biomass datasets collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and University of Nebraska-Lincoln (R2 = 0.67). This study illustrated that this approach is transferable to other semi-arid and arid grasslands and can be used for creating timely, post-season forage production assessments. When combined with seasonal climate predictions, it can provide within-season estimates of annual forage production that can serve as a basis for more informed adaptive decision making by livestock producers and land managers.

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