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Selecting Cattle to Improve Grazing Distribution Patterns, Rangeland Health and Water Quality

hereford cow at ranch
Hereford cow at Ross Ranch resting during midday. Cow activity and position was monitored with GPS collars.
Geographic Range: Western United States, especially on rugged terrain or extensive pastures.

Livestock grazing distribution is a critical concern for grazing lands, especially on extensive and rugged pastures. Rangeland health, riparian area condition, water quality, fisheries habitat, and threatened and endangered species are all affected by uneven grazing patterns. Cattle may more heavily graze areas with gentle terrain near water than rugged terrain or areas far from water, often preferring riparian areas where they spend a disproportionate amount of time compared to uplands [1]. Yet, concentrated grazing, especially in riparian zones, may reduce vegetative cover and increase soil erosion [2, 3]. Often, extensive and rugged pastures that experience problems associated with grazing have sufficient forage, but suffer from adverse impacts to natural resources from localized heavy grazing. The key to resolving such problems is to use pastures as evenly as possible.

Most of the management approaches currently used to increase grazing uniformity, such as water developments and fencing, can resolve livestock grazing distribution problems on both private and public lands. However, these practices usually require large capital expenditures. As a result, ranchers and land managers are often reluctant to develop water and build new fences. Less expensive solutions, such as salting away from water, are usually not effective enough to sufficiently alter cattle grazing patterns [4, 5]. New management techniques are needed.

Selecting cattle with desirable grazing patterns and culling cattle with undesirable grazing patterns has been suggested as a tool for improving distribution. Research conducted in southern Idaho found that cattle maintained certain home ranges, some grazing primarily uplands and others grazing meadows and riparian areas [6]. Thus, removing animals that concentrate in over-utilized areas and selecting animals that travel farther from water and up steeper slopes has the potential to improve livestock grazing distribution.

This project is the first and only study that we are aware of that has evaluated whether grazing distribution has the potential to be improved through intensive selection. The study was replicated and the results showed that selection for distribution has great promise and that additional research is warranted. However, there is a great deal more to learn, and many questions must be answered. This fact sheet presents a few ideas, resulting from our research, which may be useful to ranchers grazing extensive or rugged rangeland.

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