1. Rapid environmental change has generated growing interest in forecasts of future population trajectories. Traditional population models built with detailed demographic observations from one study site can address the impacts of environmental change at particular locations, but are difficult to scale up to the landscape and regional scales relevant to management decisions. An alternative is to build models using population-level data that are much easier to collect over broad spatial scales than individual-level data. However, it is unknown whether models built using population-level data adequately capture the effects of density-dependence and environmental forcing that are necessary to generate skillful forecasts. 2. Here, we test the consequences of aggregating individual responses when forecasting the population states (percent cover) and trajectories of four perennial grass species in a semi-arid grassland in Montana, USA. We parameterized two population models for each species, one based on individual-level data (survival, growth and recruitment) and one on population-level data (percent cover), and compared their forecasting accuracy and forecast horizons with and without the inclusion of climate covariates. For both models, we used Bayesian ridge regression to weight the influence of climate covariates for optimal prediction. 3. In the absence of climate effects, we found no significant difference between the forecast accuracy of models based on individual-level data and models based on population-level data. Climate effects were weak, but increased forecast accuracy for two species. Increases in accuracy with climate covariates were similar between model types. 4. In our case study, percent cover models generated forecasts as accurate as those from a demographic model. For the goal of forecasting, models based on aggregated individual-level data may offer a practical alternative to data-intensive demographic models. Long time series of percent cover data already exist for many plant species. Modelers should exploit these data to predict the impacts of environmental change.