With spring turnout to grass here for some ranchers and just around the corner for others, proper livestock grazing distribution is a key aspect of a comprehensive grazing management plan. Improving livestock grazing distribution has the potential to improve the financial efficiency of the grazing resource.
When stocking rates are calculated for the current grazing year, it is generally assumed that cattle will graze evenly over the entire pasture. However, as many ranchers have witnessed over the years, cows are lazy! They will develop their own “convenience areas” within a pasture. These areas are generally close to water sources, on leveled terrain, and will have desirable grasses present.
Cattle will concentrate in these convenience areas leaving them overgrazed, leading to a lower range condition. The areas that are less convenient will be grazed very lightly, if grazed at all, and will be in a higher range condition. The result is a pasture that is over-utilized in some areas and under-utilized in other. Placing salt, mineral, and oiler-rubs near water sources in these convenience areas only intensifies the poor grazing distribution and could possibly lead to soil erosion problems (Schacht et al. 1996.)
Methods to Improve Livestock Distribution
Several methods can be used to attract cattle to the underutilized areas of a pasture. These include new water developments, and rotating salt and minerals, and oiler-rubs placements. Utilizing new fence and changing the pasture size to force cattle into the less convenient areas of the pasture are also available strategies (Schacht et al. 1996).
Placement of water is probably the single most important factor affecting grazing distribution. Cattle will overgraze areas near water sources rather than traveling to areas of the pasture with abundant forage. Forage utilization decreases rapidly 800 feet to 1000 feet from water source. That distance may be even shorter in pastures with rough terrain or pastures that are highly productive.
For many years, it was common practice to place salt and minerals near the water because it was perceived that cattle needed water after consuming salt and minerals. However, this has proven to be false. Salt and minerals should be placed at least ¼ mile from the water source. Several salt and minerals locations can be utilized to improve grazing distribution. Salt and minerals locations should be moved once the grass in the area has been properly utilized.
Poor grazing distribution throughout a pasture could be likened to significant feed waste in the bale feeder or feed bunk in the winter time. Ranchers and feedlot operators have tirelessly strived for as little feed waste as possible when feeding cattle. Perhaps dollars are also being left on the table when areas of a pasture are not utilized and grazed properly. Dollars may also be lost due to the degradation of the resource in the overgrazed convenience areas.
Based on a 34-year study in western South Dakota, yearling steers grazing rangeland at stocking rates to maintain good and low-fair condition, had higher net income than rangeland stocked to maintain excellent condition (Dunn et al. 2008). Overgrazed convenience areas in a pasture may generally trend towards poor range condition and under-grazed, under-utilized areas may trend toward excellent range condition. Striving for improved grazing livestock distribution that will maintain the entire pasture in the fair to good range condition may be advantageous to the financial efficiency of the grazing enterprise.
Caution must be applied before implementing methods to improve grazing distribution. A careful in-depth cost-benefit analysis of the practices being implemented must be completed. It is easy to reach the point of diminishing returns by implementing too many practices at one time. This is where additional units of input do not correspond with increased levels of output and sustainability and profitability will be negatively impacted.
The least expensive and simplest practices such as rotating salt and minerals should be implemented first. If water sources are limited, then proceed with water improvements slowly and carefully to improve grazing distribution. Several government programs are available to assist with installation costs of water and fence improvements. Finding the right combination of grazing distribution improvements that will properly utilize the entire pasture and maintain a fair to good range condition has the potential for improved financial efficiency of your range grazing program.
Source: Sean Kelly, South Dakota State University