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Managing Cattle Behavior to Sustain Rangelands

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2016 Braunvieh World.  The information included is still relevant today as producers look to efficiently manage their resources.


Managing Cattle Behavior to Sustain Rangelands

Amanda Overleese, Freelance Writer

Cattle make decisions every day. Two things they decide are where to eat and what to eat. When cattle make these decisions, they affect the rangeland they occupy. Knowing that, ranchers can manage their cattle’s behavior in order to influence range condition and sustainability of the land. Mitch Stephenson, range management specialist at the University of Nebraska Panhandle Extension and Research Center, shared these ideas and his research experience at the 2016 annual meeting of the Nebraska Section Society for Range Management in his session, “Utilizing Cattle Behavior to Implement Better Grazing Management.”


Research Reveals Cattle Behavior

Last summer, Stephenson took part in a research project to observe how cattle grazed a pasture with several different ecological sites. The research project took place at the Sioux County Experimental Range, north of Scottsbluff, Neb. During this two-month project, there were 186 yearling heifers grazing roughly 700 acres.

After the heifers were pulled out of the pasture, Stephenson’s team took plant stubble height measurements to get an idea of what areas of the pasture the cattle grazed differently. Stephenson was able to create a spatial map of the pasture with this data to illustrate the grazing differences. He was then able to use the map to identify what areas had potential for heavy, moderate or light grazing, and what areas were at risk for overutilization.

Another project by Stephenson took place at the Gudmundsen Sandhills Laboratory, northeast of Whitman, Neb. Stephenson’s team attached GPS-tracker collars to five head of cattle in a 110-head herd. These cattle grazed 1,400 acres from mid-July to October. The results from the GPS-tracker data showed there were definite areas of the pasture that the cattle tended to graze more often than other areas.

During this project, Stephenson also found that the cattle’s behavior changed based on how much time they had spent in the pasture. When cattle entered the pasture, they traveled about 5,000 meters per day. But once the cattle had been in the pasture around 25-30 days, the distance traveled decreased to about 3,500 meters per day for the rest of the time on the pasture.

Stephenson is still studying this data but thinks it will be beneficial to producers in the future. “Their behaviors are shifting. Should we move these cattle at some specific time to capture some of the grazing behavior elements? Are they going after better-quality forages during those times? We are not sure yet, but we hope to find some answers to these questions,” Stephenson shared.


Influencing Cattle Behavior

What steps can producers take to help protect their rangeland and still make sure their cattle are productive? According to Stephenson, rotation schedules can be used to protect pastures from overutilization.

For example, after Stephenson’s team collected data at the Sioux County Experimental Range, they decided to implement a deferred rotation during the growing season. This management choice will allow the cattle to better utilize the lightly-grazed areas while protecting the heavily-grazed areas from overutilization. This choice has potential to improve the herd’s overall harvest efficiency, providing an opportunity to run cattle longer in a wet year or to have more options during a drought year.

Another strategy producers can use is managing the time of grazing, or when cattle are put onto the pasture. “What we’ve found is that grazing during the warm-season grass elongation period tends to be the most detrimental to the production during the following year,” he shared.

Shifting the time of grazing so that it’s not occurring at the same time every year can greatly influence pasture plants. Stephenson explained that as the plant elongates, it is using most of its carbohydrates. Giving pastures periodic rest during the elongation phase allows the plants to grow while they are using those carbohydrates. Not being grazed at that time decreases the risk of not being able to replenish those carbohydrates.


Examples of Targeted Grazing

According to Stephenson, targeted grazing is the manipulation of grazing animals to shape a landscape in a certain way for a specific purpose. Instead of focusing on livestock production, targeted grazing focuses on wildfire risk (prevention, suppression or management), weed control or wildlife habit.

Targeted grazing is becoming very popular in the western United States, where sagebrush is lost to wildfires and replaced by downy brome. “There’s a lot of discussion about what role cattle play in helping to manage some of this wildfire risk,” Stephenson said.

He shared that researchers of the 2007 Murphy Wildland Fire Complex in southern Idaho found definite differences in areas that had been grazed and areas left ungrazed. They found that moderate grazing had an influence on the flame length, rate of spread and fire intensity under moderate fire conditions. Stephenson added that targeted grazing can aid in wildfire prevention by influencing the amount and continuity of the fuel.

Stephenson concluded his presentation by reminding producers that cattle can be managed in a way to help shape their landscape. “Sometimes we can make small changes and manage some of our plant communities, while still providing meat and livestock products,” he summarized.

As researchers continue to gather information about cattle behavior while grazing, producers can implement their suggestions into their own operations. Taking the initiative to improve pasture sustainability can provide a healthy, well-managed feed source for livestock for years to come.

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