A range utilization study conducted by Dr. Derek
Bailey, professor of Animal and Range Sciences at New Mexico State
University, may have broad impact for ranchers grazing cattle,
specifically those on public allotments.
Researchers and cattle grazers have been looking for ways to encourage
even distribution of forage utilization across the entire range area,
while easing the heavy use of riparian areas. Under traditional range
conditions in the West, as much as 30 percent of an allotment gets very
little grazing due to its slope, elevation, and distance from water,
said Bailey. As a result, cattle stick to grazing in stream-side areas,
particularly under drought conditions, which can create conflicts with
land managers and users of public lands, and may ultimately lead to a
reduction of the number of cattle permitted or available grazing days.
As producers are aware, a reduction in grazing ties directly to
significant increases in expenditures.
In a series of studies, conducted under a variety of pasture conditions,
researchers fitted cows with global positioning satellite (GPS) collars
to track movement and turned them out on parcels up to 100,000 acres in
size. The study showed positive results under moderate late fall and
early winter grazing conditions in the Montana foothills.
Prior to the study, cattle were introduced to a low-moisture block
supplement in penned, dry-lot conditions similar to those experienced
during the calving season. After cattle had become familiar with the
supplement, they were fitted with the collars and turned out into
grazing allotments spanning a wide range of conditions and quality.
Researchers found that animals that were conditioned to the blocks were
more willing to travel farther away from water sources and stay away
longer when “rewarded” with the supplement.
Several different protocols were followed and researchers found that
supplement stations provided to preconditioned cattle caused them to
voluntarily travel farther from water sources and stay away longer than
just a straight mineral supplement. When combined with late morning to
early afternoon herding the researchers found the best results.
“What we determined is that cattle would willingly travel up to a mile
or more horizontally and 300-400 feet vertically, up steep slopes to get
to the supplement. Once there, they tended to stay in the area to graze
for several hours,” Bailey said. Researchers believe that once the
cattle had traveled the distance to the supplement, their “reward,”
staying and grazing the grass within several hundred yards of the
station was not an inconvenience.
Researchers also attempted similar studies using cake and liquid
supplements. The team determined that neither cake nor liquid supplement
under range conditions was effective. With cake, the cattle tended to
only stay in the area for an hour or so after it was gone before moving
back toward water.
“They definitely knew when it was gone. We were feeding 150 pounds of
cake at a time. After feeding, the cattle were leaving fewer than 30
grams of feed behind.” Bailey said. Liquid supplements yielded grazing
results similar to a low moisture block, but due to increased levels of
consumption and higher labor costs, the scientists determined that
liquid supplement was not a cost-effective measure. Bailey believes that
because the cattle knew there was still more supplement remaining, in
both the block and liquid trial, the cattle would remain in the area
This particular study showed researchers that when combined with
herding, dehydrated molasses protein supplements could by used to easily
move cattle away from riparian areas and into areas which were not being
optimally grazed, for instance, areas containing dry forage away from
water and less palatable grassland along ridge lines. “What we found was
that cattle were willingly driven away from hay quality pasture in
riparian areas toward dry fescue ridges. The cows frequently trotted the
last few hundred yards to the supplement barrels and stayed within 600
yards for quite some time,” Bailey said. Continuously moving the
supplement station, a few hundred yards every couple of weeks, creates
an even grazing pattern which generates better utilization of the
Grazing distributions are dependent on a variety of factors, including
the slope of the terrain, availability of water, breed of the animals,
palatability of forage and other environmental issues. Numerous studies
have been conducted to determine how those factors influence animal
impact on forage and how producers can manipulate their animals to
create a better herd, all in an effort to prevent the overgrazing of
riparian areas. Previous findings suggested manipulating grazing
preferences required fencing or other labor and cost intensive features.
However, the use of supplement blocks appears to be both cost and labor
effective even when combined with herding. Bailey’s studies, combined
with the research of a number of agricultural economists, showed
increases in labor and supplement cost were offset by better forage
utilization and a subsequent increase in available grazing days.
Bailey also noted studies in which researchers made culling decisions
based upon what range areas certain cows tended to graze. Further
studies showed that certain breeds of cattle actually tended to prefer
higher more arid slopes. Tarentaise, Charolais, and Piedmontese were
more adaptable to climbing higher above and farther from their water
sources. Bailey believes that because the cattle were originally bred to
forage in the high mountains of Europe, they are better suited to the
high range conditions of many western states. Under mountainous
conditions, incorporating these genetic lines may also provide a
performance improvement for cattle producers willing to try something
Melvin Armstrong, a Cardwell, MT, rancher and former U.S. Forest Service
range analyst, has been using the low moisture blocks for eight years
and has had good results improving grazing utilization. Prior to
utilizing the blocks, members of the grazing association to which he
belongs were having difficulty working with land managers because the
cattle were over grazing the bottom land.
“In my opinion this is the only thing that will pull them out of the
bottoms,” Armstrong said. He estimates that the product and labor
involved with purchase and placement of the blocks costs him between
$2-3.50 per animal unit month; his records show that the return has been
worth the effort. “They pay for themselves, plus, we see an additional
10 pounds on the calves and it’s been putting weight on the cows too,”
On the return side, producers participating in the Montana studies have
seen an average return of an extra 10 percent of previous allotment
cuts. Land managers have also been receptive to restoring allocations
when these products are used to alleviate overgrazing concerns.
“While it may not be the answer to all problems, it is a good place to
start. Guys who are using it are seeing an improvement in utilization,”
said Bob Welling, research support manager for Ridley Block Operations.
“Producers still have to consider costs.” Bailey said, but he believes
that these types of management techniques will benefit grazing
operations in the future. “I foresee a day when land managers will
actually pay ranchers to graze the land,” he said. Bailey thinks that
targeted grazing to create fire breaks, clear land and control noxious
weeds will benefit land, public and private.
The tools studied by Bailey could provide a start toward that future
without the need for costly and intrusive fencing. While they may not
benefit all grazers, the management techniques being studied by Bailey
and other range scientists may warrant a look by ranchers hoping to
better distribute forage utilization under range conditions. — John
Robinson, WLJ Associate Editor
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