Grazing distribution is key to maximizing forage uptake and range health

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Farm Forum

BROOKINGS, S.D. — As South Dakota ranchers begin turning cattle out to grass this spring, SDSU Extension Range Management Field Specialist, Sean Kelly reminds ranchers that proper livestock grazing distribution is key to maximizing forage uptake, range health and ultimately dollars per acre of forage.

“Poor grazing distribution throughout a pasture is like feed waste at the feed bunk in winter. Dollars are left on the table when areas of a pasture are not utilized and grazed properly,” Kelly said. “Improving livestock grazing distribution has the potential to improve the financial efficiency of the grazing resource.”

However, Kelly points out that grazing distribution goes beyond a mathematical equation. “When ranchers calculate stocking rates 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 and will develop their own convenience areas within a pasture,” he said.

Convenience areas are generally close to water sources, on level terrain, and will have desirable grasses present. Cattle tend to overgraze these areas, damaging the range condition while leaving underutilized those areas which are less convenient. “The result is a pasture that is over-utilized in some areas and under-utilized in other,” Kelly said.

He added that placement of salt, mineral and oiler-rubs near water sources only intensifies the poor grazing distribution and could possibly lead to soil erosion problems.

Methods to improve livestock distribution

Based on a 34-year study conducted at SDSU’s Cottonwood Range and Livestock Field Station near Philip showed that when yearling steers grazed rangeland at stocking rates to maintain good and fair condition there was a higher net income than rangeland stocked to maintain excellent condition.

“Basically, I encourage producers to implement range management practices which improve the entire range conditions- keeping the entire pasture in that sweet spot that is fair to good range condition – instead of one area being overgrazed and poor and another area being undergrazed and excellent,” Kelly said.

Several methods can be used to encourage cattle to more evenly graze a pasture, these include:

• New water developments; especially in parts of the pasture cattle often neglect.

• Rotating salt, mineral, and oiler-rubs placements.

• Utilizing new fence and changing the pasture size to force cattle into the less convenient areas.

Of these strategies, Kelly said water placement is probably the most important factor affecting grazing distribution.

“Cattle will overgraze areas near water sources rather than traveling to areas of the pasture with abundant forage,” he said.

Forage utilization decreases rapidly 800 feet to 1000 feet from the water source. The distance may decrease in pastures with rough terrain or pastures that are highly productive.

Moving salt and mineral away from the water source, encourages cattle to graze more of the pasture. Salt and minerals should be placed at least a quarter mile from the water source.

“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,” Kelly said.

Kelly encourages producers to set up several temporary salt and minerals locations throughout a pasture to improve grazing distribution. These locations can be moved once the grass in the area has been properly utilized.

“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,” Kelly explained. “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.”

Where to begin?

When it comes to implementing management strategies Kelly encourages ranchers to make the easiest changes first. “I encourage producers to take it slow and use caution before implementing methods to improve grazing distribution,” Kelly said. “It is easy to reach the point of diminishing returns by implementing too many practices at one time.”

A careful in-depth cost-benefit analysis of the practices being implemented must be completed. Kelly suggests producers begin by implementing the least expensive and simplest practices, such as rotating salt and minerals, first.

“If water sources are limited, then proceed with water improvements slowly and carefully to improve grazing distribution,” he said, adding that 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,” Kelly said.

For more information, contact Kelly at sean.kelly@sdstate.edu or 605.842.1267.