Land management practices and disturbances (e.g. overgrazing, fire) have substantial effects on grassland forage production. When using satellite remote sensing to monitor climate impacts, such as drought stress on annual forage production, minimizing land management practices and disturbance effects sends a clear climate signal to the productivity data. This study investigates the effect of this climate signal by: (1) providing spatial estimates of expected biomass under specific climate conditions, (2) determining which drought indices explain the majority of interannual variability in this biomass, and (3) developing a predictive model that estimates the annual biomass early in the growing season. To address objective 1, this study uses an established methodology to determine Expected Ecosystem Performance (EEP) in the Nebraska Sandhills, US, representing annual forage levels after accounting for non-climatic influences. Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS)-based Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) data were used to approximate actual ecosystem performance. Seventeen years (2000–2016) of annual EEP was calculated using piecewise regression tree models of site potential and climate data. Expected biomass (EB), EEP converted to biomass in kg*ha−1
, was then used to examine the predictive capacity of several drought indices and the onset date of the growing season. Subsets of these indices were used to monitor and predict annual expected grassland biomass. Independent field-based biomass production data available from two Sandhills locations were used for validation of the EEP model. The EB was related to field-based biomass production (R2
= 0.66 and 0.57) and regional rangeland productivity statistics of the Soil Survey Geographic Database (SSURGO) dataset. The Evaporative Stress Index (ESI), the 3- and 6-month Standardized Precipitation Index (SPI), and the U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM), which represented moisture conditions during May, June and July, explained the majority of the interannual biomass variability in this grassland system (three-month ESI explained roughly 72% of the interannual biomass variability). A new model was developed to use drought indices from early in the growing season to predict the total EB for the whole growing season. This unique approach considers only climate-related drought signal on productivity. The capability to estimate annual EB by the end of May will potentially enable land managers to make informed decisions about stocking rates, hay purchase needs, and other management issues early in the season, minimizing their potential drought losses.
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