Selecting Cattle to Prevent Grazing Distribution Problems

2001 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

Summary

The primary goal of this study is to determine if the removal of cattle that have undesirable grazing patterns will prevent resource degradation that occurs when cattle use rangeland unevenly. For this proposed approach to be economically sustainable, producers 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, 2000 and 2001, cattle at NARC were separated into two groups based on where they grazed in 1997 and 1998 (hill climbers that preferred steeper slopes / higher elevations and bottom dwellers that preferred gentler slopes / lower elevations). These groups grazed similar, but separate, 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 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 these hill climber and bottom dweller groups were compared at the Ross Ranch during 2000 and 2001. Data collected in 1999, 2000 and 2001 are being analyzed to determine if uniformity of grazing differed between the hill climber and bottom dweller groups were less sensitive to slope and utilized steeper slopes more uniformly than the bottom dweller group. In sensitive areas near water, forage utilization was less and stubble height was greater when grazed by hill climbers than if grazed by bottom dwellers. Other preliminary results suggest that cattle that are found at the back of the herd during the trail drive 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. Data from GPS collars demonstrated that early morning horseback observations provide a good index of where cattle prefer to graze. Thus, cows grazing on gentle slopes near water during the early morning probably have undesirable grazing patterns during other parts of the day. If selection for grazing distribution proves to be effective as hypothesized, ranchers should not be concerned with negative animal performance and decreased profitability with implementation of 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.

Objectives/Performance Targets

  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.

    Determine if removing cattle with undesirable grazing distribution patterns will result in a more uniform use of forage in foothills rangeland.

    Determine the relationships among individual grazing distribution patterns and livestock production traits such as calf weaning weight, pregnancy rate and mature cow weight.

    Disseminate the results of the project to livestock producers, other extension personnel, rangeland managers and the scientific community.

Accomplishments/Milestones

Objective 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.

The position of cattle within the herd during trailing has been observed for 4 years. Preliminary analyses from the first year’s study at Northern Agricultural Research Center (NARC) suggest that cattle that are in the front of the herd during trailing tend to use steeper slopes and higher elevations than cattle in the back of the herd. Although statistically significant, the relationship was relatively weak. Data from the other 4 years are currently being analyzed. Cattle that use rougher terrain also appear to be less docile than cattle that use gentler terrain. The relationships between docility and grazing patterns are currently being analyzed. Since August 1998, grazing patterns have been recorded using Global Positioning System (GPS) collars that record the position of cattle within 10 meters on a 24-hour basis (usually 4 to 6 times per hour). These data are being used to determine if there are other behavioral traits that can be used to separate cattle into those that prefer gentle (bottom dwellers) and rugged (hill climbers) terrain. Location data from the 9 cows (4 of the best hill climbers and 5 of the worst bottom dwellers) during August and September 1998 were analyzed to evaluate how well early morning observation reflected where cattle grazed. Cows usually went to water between 9 and 11 am and left water at 5 to 7 pm. Bottom dwellers traveled to water before the hill climbers. After leaving water in the evening, cattle generally traveled to an area where they would stay until they walked to water again on the following morning. From the period 1 hour after leaving water until 1 hour before traveling back to water, 77% of the observations were within 300 meters of their location at 7 am (when horseback observers usually recorded locations). Thus, the 7 am observation was indicative where the cow generally grazed. Cows that are observed grazing on gentle slopes near water during early morning hours are probably cows that have the least desirable grazing patterns.

Objective 2. Determine if removing cattle with undesirable grazing distribution patterns will result in a more uniform use of forage in foothills rangeland.

To determine if removing cattle with undesirable grazing distribution patterns will improve the uniformity of grazing use, grazing patterns of individual cattle must be observed and classified. During 1997 and 1998, locations of cattle at NARC were recorded by horseback observers, and individual cattle were ranked based on their average use of slopes and elevations. Cattle used similar elevations within a pasture for two consecutive years (correlation = 0.34). Cattle with more Tarentaise breeding (developed in the French Alps) used steeper and higher terrain (P<0.05) than cattle with more Hereford breeding (developed in England). Cows sired by Piedmontese bulls (developed in the foothills of the Italian Alps) used higher terrain (P<0.05) than cows sired by Angus bulls (developed near the coast of Scotland). The observed differences among breeds suggest that cattle grazing patterns may be heritable. During 1999, 2 herds of cattle at 2 different sites on the Ross Ranch were observed, and horseback observers recorded animal locations. Data were used to identify cattle that prefer gentle (bottom dwellers) and rugged terrain (hill climbers). Cattle were separated into 2 groups (bottom dwellers and hill climbers) at NARC and the Ross Ranch. Pastures were split in half using electric fence as equally as possible. The 2 groups were observed simultaneously in the pasture halves using horseback observers and GPS collars. Forage utilization and standing crop were measured after grazing in each set of pastures. Eight comparisons of hill climbers and bottom dwellers were completed (NARC – 3 years, 2 sets of pastures / year; Ross Ranch – 2 years). Data are currently being analyzed. Prior to the study, riparian areas and other sensitive areas with gentle slopes near water were designated. Forage utilization in these areas was less (P<0.01) in pastures grazed by hill climbers (48%) than those grazed by bottom dwellers (61%). In addition, stubble height in sensitive areas was greater (P<0.01) when grazed by hill climbers (13 cm or 5.1 in) than when grazed by bottom dwellers (8 cm or 3.3 in). These results demonstrate that selection for grazing distribution has the potential to improve conditions of sensitive areas that have been heavily grazed in the past. Forage utilization in pastures grazed hill climbers was affected less (P<0.05) by slope, horizontal and vertical distance to water than pastures grazed by bottom dwellers. For example, forage utilization declined by 0.33 percentage points for every degree increase in slope in bottom dweller pastures, and forage utilization only declined 0.25 percentage points for every degree increase in slope in hill climber pastures. These forage use measurements show that cows classified as hill climbers grazed rugged foothill rangeland more uniformly than those classified as bottom dwellers. Objective 3. Determine the relationships among individual grazing distribution patterns and livestock production traits such as calf weaning weight, pregnancy rate and mature cow weight. During 1997 and 1998 at NARC, the average slope, distance to water and elevation where cattle were observed was not consistently related to their milk production, weight, hip height or body condition score. During 1997, cattle that were observed on steeper slopes and higher elevations calved earlier in the season and had correspondingly heavier calves at weaning than cows that were observed on gentler slopes and lower elevations. During 1998, there was no relationship between the terrain where cattle were observed and the birth date or weaning weight of their calves. Based on this data, cattle ranchers should not expect any decline in the performance or profitability of their herd if cattle that prefer gentler slopes and lower elevations were removed from the herd. This is critical information for producers who may consider the implementation of a selection program based on livestock grazing distribution.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

Objective 4. Disseminate the results of the project to livestock producers, other extension personnel, rangeland managers and the scientific community.

During 2001, preliminary results from this research project have been presented to livestock producers, extension personnel, university students, rangeland managers and the scientific community at field days, producer meetings and a scientific conference. Derek W. Bailey gave a presentation summarizing this project at the 2001 annual meeting of the Society for Range Management in Kona, Hawaii during February 19 – 22, 2001. A second scientific presentation was given at the annual meeting of the Western Section of the American Society of Animal Science in Bozeman, MT on June 23, 2001. Bailey was invited to give presentations at cooperative extension agent training meetings in Davis, CA, Dupuyer, MT and Lewistown, MT. Bailey gave an invited presentation on this project at the Governor’s Winter Grazing Conference in Dillon, MT in January 2001 to over 100 producers. Results from this study were presented at the NARC annual field day in Havre, MT. Students and faculty from University of Wyoming and University of Nevada, Reno (30 students and 5 faculty) toured the NARC study site and spent a day discussing results of this study with Bailey. In addition, 6 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.

During the next year of this project, we plan to present the research results at 2 symposia, a short course at 2 locations, scientific meetings and producer meetings. Research results will be given at the annual NARC field day. Results will be presented at a technical meeting and at a symposium at the 2002 annual meeting of the Society for Range Management in Kansas City, MO. Results from this research project will also be presented at a symposium at a annual meeting of the American Fisheries Society in Spokane, WA during April 2002. The riparian committee of the Society for Range Management invited Bailey to give a presentation at the AFS symposium to give fisheries biologists and land managers a summary of the existing and newly developed management practices (including this project) that can be used to improve conditions of streams and watersheds grazed by livestock.

A short course on managing livestock grazing distribution is being developed and refined. The short course includes all aspects of the field research funded by the Western Regional SARE program as well as other livestock grazing distribution research conducted at NARC and other universities. We plan to make it the “state of the art” course for western livestock producers. The short course was presented at an extension agent training program in Lewistown, MT during November 2001 and will presented in 2 other locations in Montana in 2002 (Havre and Great Falls) and sent to extension specialists throughout the west. We hope to be able to present the short course in other western states as well as inclusion on the NARC internet website.

Potential Benefits or Impacts on Agriculture

If the hypotheses that we tested in this study continue to be 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 concentrated livestock grazing in certain areas. Rangeland livestock production may also be enhanced. Many rangelands contain large acreages 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% with no adverse consequences to adjacent (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 better adapted to extensive western rangelands than those breeds developed in gentle terrain. These practices in combination with other techniques such as the placement of 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.

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 recommendations of our study. For example, Bob Budde (Wyoming ranch manager discussed above) said that the research is on the right track. He is interested if our quantitative study will confirm his personal observations obtained on the ranch. The NARC has a 16 member advisory board composed of local farmers and ranchers. They have reviewed and readily approved this research program. Members of the Montana Agricultural Experiment State Advisory Committee were very supportive of this research project. Participants at the First National Conference on Grazing Lands were interested in this research project and supportive. We have also received very positive comments from the NCR-180 “Precision Agriculture” group

This project was so well received by producers from the Salers Association (a cattle breed association) that they provided some additional funding to help expand this research and compare the grazing behavior of cows with Salers, Angus, Charolais and Piedmontese breeding. (Note: The Salers project is an expansion of the research project funded by the Western Regional SARE program. The Salers project has new objectives and requires additional field work and data analyses.)

Producer Involvement

Producers Don and Warren Ross are directly involved in this research project. Their cattle are being observed on two units of their ranch. The experiment initiated on the NARC ranch is being replicated at the Ross Ranch. Numerous other producers were directly involved in the development and design of this research project.

Producer Attendance during 2001 at:

Workshops and Producer Meetings – 150 producers at 6 workshop/meetings

Conferences – 5 producers and 40 total attendance at scientific meetings at Kona, HI and
Bozeman, MT

Field Days – 70 producers and over 100 total attendance at the NARC field day

Future Recommendations or New Hypotheses

Future recommendations will be more obvious later in the study. After 3 years of field work, the project has progressed well and preliminary results are very promising. In the future, we would like to incorporate this research with other techniques in an integrated program including strategic supplementation, salting and herding. Incorporating all management techniques in an integrated program may solve even the most severe and high profile grazing distribution problems.