Supplements, herding improve grazing utilization

Cattle Market & Farm Reports, Editorials
Aug 8, 2005
by WLJ

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 longer.
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 resource.
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 new.
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,” he said.
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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