Selecting Cattle to Prevent Grazing Distribution Problems

1998 Annual Report for SW98-064

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1998: $115,598.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2002
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $46,158.00
Region: Western
State: Montana
Principal Investigator:
Derek Bailey
Montana State University

Selecting Cattle to Prevent Grazing Distribution Problems



1. Using simple and easily obtainable observations, identify a behavior(s) that can be used to predict the general grazing distribution patterns of individual cattle.
2. Determine if removing cattle with undesirable grazing distribution patterns will result in a more uniform use of forage in foothills rangeland.
3. Determine the relationships among individual grazing distribution patterns and livestock production traits such as calf weaning weight, pregnancy rate and mature cow weight.
4. Disseminate the results of the project to livestock producers, other extension personnel, rangeland managers and the scientific community.


The primary goal of this study is to determine if removing cattle that have undesirable grazing patterns will prevent resource degradation that occurs when cattle use rangeland unevenly. For this proposed management approach to be economically sustainable, we must be able to readily identify cattle that have desirable and undesirable grazing patterns and determine if culling cattle with undesirable grazing patterns will adversely affect herd performance and profitability. Research directly related to this project was conducted on foothills rangeland at the Northern Agricultural Research Center (NARC) during 1997 and 1998. Funding from SARE for this project was first received in January 1999.

During 1999, cattle at NARC were separated into two groups based on where they grazed in 1997 and 1998 (hill climbers that preferred steeper slopes and higher elevations and bottom dwellers that preferred gentler slopes and lower elevations). The two groups of cattle were placed in two sets of paired pastures. Cattle grazing patterns of each group were collected using horseback observers and Global Positioning System (GPS) collars. Vegetative measurements were used to compare forage use patterns across all pastures. This study is being repeated at two separate herds at two locations on the Ross Ranch. Animal locations were observed in 1999 at the Ross Ranch to classify cattle into hill climber and bottom dweller groups. Grazing distribution patterns and forage use of the hill climber and bottom dweller groups will be compared in multiple pastures at NARC and the Ross Ranch during 2000 and 2001. Until these observations are completed and analyzed, no conclusions can be drawn about the effectiveness of a selection for grazing distribution program.

Preliminary results suggest that cattle that are found at the back of the herd during trailing tend to use gentler slopes and lower elevations than cattle at the front of the herd. However, this relationship so far is weak, and other behavioral indicators of where cattle graze are being evaluated. If selection for grazing distribution proves to be effective as we hypothesized, ranchers should not be concerned with animal performance and profitability when implementing this management practice. Cows that climbed steeper slopes and higher elevations had similar calf weaning weights, body condition scores and other measures of performance as cows that spent more time on gentler slopes and lower elevations on foothills rangeland. Thus, culling cows that prefer lower, gentler topography should not adversely affect cattle production or profitability.

Dissemination of Findings

During 1999, preliminary results from this research project have been presented to livestock producers, extension personnel, rangeland managers and the scientific community at two field days, a range tour, producer meetings and a scientific conference. Derek W. Bailey was invited to give a presentation at the Grazing Behavior of Livestock and Wildlife conference in Moscow, Idaho during March 23-24, 1999. A reviewed paper summarized the presentation and was included in the proceedings published by the Idaho Forest, Wildlife and Range Experiment Station. Bailey was also invited to give a presentation for Oregon State University at its Union Station field day. Results were presented at the NARC annual field day in Havre, MT. The International Mountain Section of the Society for Range Management toured the NARC study site in the Bear’s Paws mountains and saw this research study first hand. The public was invited to join this tour, and several livestock producers and local community members attended. In addition, 12 meetings were held where results from this and other livestock grazing distribution research conducted at NARC were presented to producers from Montana, other western states and Canada.

Potential Benefits or Impacts on Agriculture

If the hypotheses that we testing are supported by the data, livestock ranchers will have a new tool to improve livestock grazing distribution. Improving livestock distribution will help prevent degradation of riparian areas and fisheries. It should also reduce erosion and minimize any adverse impacts on wildlife habitat that may result from livestock concentrating their grazing in certain areas. Rangeland livestock production may also be enhanced. Many rangelands contain large areas that receive little, or no, grazing use. By selecting animals that are more willing to utilize rugged topography, the amount of forage that could be harvested on many rangeland pastures could be increased by more than 30 percent with no adverse consequences to adjoining (less rugged) rangeland.

Farmer Adoption and Direct Impact

A few ranchers have adopted the management techniques that we are currently testing in this study. Bob Budde is a manager for a Wyoming cattle ranch owned by the Nature Conservancy. Mr. Budde says culling cattle that prefer gentle terrain and riparian areas minimizes adverse impacts of livestock grazing on the fisheries of their ranch. If the data supports the hypotheses we are testing in this study, we will recommend that animals that prefer gentle terrain near water should be culled from the herd. In addition to selection of individual animals, managers can also select cattle breeds that more readily use steep terrain and areas far from water. Breeds developed in mountainous terrain may be more adapted to extensive western rangelands than those developed in gentle terrain. These practices in combination with other techniques such as placing salt and supplement in underutilized rangeland should improve the uniformity of grazing on rugged western rangeland and minimize any adverse impacts associated with livestock grazing. The selection program that we are investigating should also improve the effectiveness of herding, and new water developments should open up even more rangeland if cattle that avoid traveling away from water are culled.

Reactions from Farmers and Ranchers

Ranchers that we have talked with have been very supportive of our research program. They have been interested in the results we have obtained so far, and they are even more interested in the final outcome of our study. For example, Wyoming ranch manager Bob Budde (discussed above) has said that the research is on the right track and that he is interested in whether the quantitative study will support his personal observations obtained on the ranch. The NARC has a 16 member advisory board composed of local farmers and ranchers, and they have reviewed the research program and preliminary results and have been very supportive. Members of the Montana Agricultural Experiment State Advisory Committee were interested in this research project. Local community members attending our range tour in July 1999 called and requested annual tours and updates of this research project. The presentations on this research given at the Oregon State University Union Station Field Day and the NARC Field Day were well received.

This project was so well received by producers from the Salers Association (a cattle breed association) that they plan to provide some additional funding to help expand this research and compare the grazing behavior of cows with Salers, Angus, Charolais and Piedmontese breeding.

This summary was prepared by the project coordinator for the 2000 reporting cycle.