Strategic supplement placement can radically improve forage utilization

Protein supplementation in block and tub forms can be an effective tool to manipulate grazing distribution on large grazing parcels.

April 16, 2015

8 Min Read
Strategic supplement placement can radically improve forage utilization

Proven tools such as controlled grazing and managed intensive grazing are effective in maximizing pasture use in smaller parcels, but what about cattle grazing rangeland?

Specialists say strategic use of protein blocks and tubs can be effective attractants to encourage cattle to use certain areas of grazing that otherwise might go underused. This could result in better use of winter pasture to keep cattle grazing longer before you have to feed hay, or better utilization of available forage to allow heavier stocking density.

“We normally provide supplemental protein to meet an expected level of performance, but we can also use it to modify grazing distribution, just like strategic placement of salt and water developments,” says David Bohnert, associate professor of ruminant nutrition and director of Oregon State University’s Eastern Oregon Agriculture Research Center in Burns. He adds that it’s particularly important in extensive pastures and rangeland, where profit or loss depends on how well these lands can be utilized without feeding hay.

“In the East, farms and cow herds tend to be smaller, but in the arid West, it generally takes many more acres per cow – perhaps 100 acres per cow vs. 10-20 acres per cow in the East. When putting out protein for cows on pastures that might be 10,000 to 100,000 acres in size, supplementation becomes an opportunity and a challenge,” Bohnert says.

using supplements to direct cowsWater is the best way to help distribute cattle on large pastures, but it isn’t always an option. “We can often use a protein supplement to pull cattle into areas where we want them to be, or into areas they don’t normally go,” he says.

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Derek W. Bailey, professor and director of New Mexico State University’s Chihuahuan Desert Rangeland Research Center, has extensively studied use of protein supplements to alter grazing behavior. He says there’s generally sufficient grass available in large parcels but cattle tend to overuse some areas and underuse others. “It’s often just a matter of getting cattle spread out so they don’t have so much impact in one area,” he says.

Bohnert says Oregon studies in big range pastures using GPS-collared cows found cattle often graze 40% to 60% of the area, depending on the pasture. “On 100 acres, it’s possible to make cattle graze the whole thing, but on large Bureau of Land Management allotments with varied terrain, they might not use some of it due to forage quality, slope, limited water access, etc. That’s where a little protein supplement can allow producers to strategically change cattle’s use patterns.”

Extra dollars makes sense

Though supplement is expensive, it has an economic advantage. “You might be using it not so much to increase cows’ body condition but because you want to leave the herd on fall or winter grazing and not bring them home for another two months,” Bohnert says.

Utilizing pasture that much longer can, in most situations, more than offset the cost of the protein, especially when hay is high-priced, he says. The bottom line is that if you’re trying to get cattle to utilize low-quality forage or graze areas they don’t normally graze, you need an attractant that cattle will eat.

Bailey began doing research on low-moisture blocks two decades ago while at Montana State University. He says these supplements contain urea and natural protein such as soybean and cottonseed meals, plus vitamins and minerals, in a molasses mix.

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The manufacturers cook it and place it in a vacuum so it dehydrates and becomes very hard. The mix is then put in barrels, plastic tubs or other containers, he says. Some supplements are made by putting ingredients under hydraulic pressure to form blocks, while others have additives like bentonite to make them hard.

“We had the best luck with low-moisture blocks. We compared these with feeding cake and also a liquid, molasses-based protein supplement with a lick wheel. The advantage of low-moisture blocks is they’re available in different sizes and have lasting power out on the range. Plus, cattle love them,” Bailey says.

One New Mexico study compared pressed blocks with low-moisture blocks. For the first month, cattle didn’t consume either one, Bailey reports, as the forage quality was still relatively good and protein wasn’t a good attractant. Later in the season, cattle started eating the low-moisture block but very little of the pressed block, he says.

“We’ve had good luck using protein supplements to influence grazing behavior when forage is dormant and of low quality. We tried to use a supplement when forage quality is good and they don’t eat it; it won’t work as an attractant in those conditions,” Bailey says.

When forage quality is high, salt and mineral supplements work better as attractants. That’s because lush feed has a high water content and cattle need salt and mineral to replace the body salts flushed out with the washy feed.

Another study compared white salt blocks alone versus low-moisture blocks and white salt blocks. Cattle were more attracted to sites with low-moisture blocks and salt blocks than sites with salt blocks alone.

“If you feed cubes or cake, cattle will eat it quickly and leave,” Bailey says. “With blocks, cattle know there will still be protein there. They tend to go there in the evening to lick on the blocks and maybe loaf all night, and graze there in the morning.”

A lick wheel supplement worked as an attractant, too, though the labor associated with liquid supplements is more challenging in the mountains, Bailey says.

“In sub-zero weather, liquid molasses supplements are a challenge! It’s difficult to haul, and consumption rate was too high, which made it too expensive for practical purposes,” he explains.

Protecting riparian areas

Bohnert says research shows placing protein blocks in uplands away from riparian areas can decrease riparian utilization by cattle by as much as 50%, because adequate protein allows cattle to utilize dry grass. Bailey adds that protein supplements can attract and keep cattle in desired locations, especially when combined with low-stress herding.

Supplement alone won’t keep cattle out of riparian areas, especially when these areas are green and the uplands are dry, Bailey says. It does help, however, in conjunction with herding.

“The first time we tried it, we were interested in herding cattle out of a riparian area in Montana. We put the supplement on uplands about a mile away, then herded the cattle to it, hoping the supplement would hold them there. The protein served as an attractant and held them there, with most of the use being within 600 yards of where we placed the supplement,” Bailey says.

Creating firebreaks

Studies at University of Nevada-Reno and in Oregon are using protein blocks in cheatgrass-infested rangeland to make firebreaks. Supplements are placed in strategic locations to encourage cattle to graze those areas and reduce standing fuels (cheatgrass). This can limit the extent of a wildfire and make it easier to control, Bohnert says.

Recent experiments funded by USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative sought to learn if a protein supplement and herding could focus cattle in certain areas to control fine fuels (grasses/forbs). Conducted in the mountains south of Tucson, Ariz., and near Las Cruces and in the Sacramento Mountains in southern New Mexico, students at University of Arizona and NMSU found they could get cattle to spend 25% or more of their time within several hundred meters of where they put supplement.

“Thus, we were able to get cattle to graze some spots that they ordinarily would not graze, to reduce fine fuels. The cattle didn’t eat it down to bare ground, but grazed it to desired grazing levels in some really tough spots that were rarely grazed before,” Bailey says.

Bailey says this could serve as an effective tactic around an urban/open land interface where there is no fencing, or where fences are not very good. “A person could herd cattle there and let them graze areas where you might not want to build a fence, or where there isn’t enough water. You could just take them there and let them graze a while each day. Protein supplement can be a big part of that,” he explains.

“We’re trying to think of additional ways to get more value from supplement and the cattle, using them as a vegetation manipulation tool rather than just beef production,” Bailey says.

Cattle serve a great purpose in nature and we can use them to our advantage in managing the land better, he adds.

Heather Smith Thomas is a rancher and freelance writer based in Salmon, Idaho.


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