cattle grazing in a field

For most of the West’s livestock grazing history, riparian areas were considered sacrifice areas – dung piles deepened under shady conifers, livestock trampled the deep-rooted sedges that held streambanks in place, and willows provided scratching posts until the branches broke off. Today, range managers realize sacrificing riparian areas means potentially fouling clean water, increasing the chance of severe soil erosion during spring runoff, reducing bird and big game habitat and killing productive livestock forage, not to mention the political fallout from other land users.

SARE funded a project designed to evaluate cattle behavior in riparian areas during early and late summers for Oregon’s Tim DelCurto, his research collaborator, University of Idaho’s Patrick Momont and their partners from the Forest Service, the Oregon and Idaho cattle associations, Extension and Idaho Fish and Game. They expected cattle behavior to change as they aged and weaned their calves – that dry heifers and older dry cows would travel farther away from creeks and shade than running-age cow-calf pairs.

Surprisingly, heifers often did not seem to know where to find good grazing on the uplands and dry cows seemed lazier, lounging under the trees in the hot summer. Instead of dividing herds along age classes and grazing without regard to the season, the researchers recommend grazing mountain riparian areas earlier in the summer when temperatures are cooler as long as the riparian soils are not muddy. Cattle will graze the uplands, farther from the riparian areas, avoiding re-grazing each plant. Placing mineral supplements in upland areas helps draw cattle away from streams, too, especially later in the summer.

Besides protecting riparian areas from erosion and other environmental calamities, producers who remove livestock from riparian areas also reap the benefit of tapping formerly unused forage that grows on extensive and often rugged uplands. So researchers are investigating just what it takes to implement another inexpensive yet effective management strategy: selecting for cattle that like to travel the uplands and culling those “bottom dwellers.”

In Montana, Derek Bailey found that some individual cattle prefer to lounge around streams and water holes while others will perform just as well even though they expend more energy climbing hills to more abundant forage. Bailey, now at New Mexico State University, continues to probe techniques to identify and promote “hill climbers” individually and by breed for western cattle producers.

“Livestock can be compatible with natural resources,” says eastern Oregon’s Tim DelCurto. “It is all a matter of how to manage timing, intensity and frequency.”