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Head ’em up to other grassHead ’em up to other grass

Improving cattle grazing distribution through herding techniques can boost a pasture’s sustainability.

Jennifer M. Latzke

April 19, 2023

4 Min Read
Herd of cattle in foreground, cowboys on horseback in background
MOVE ’EM OUT: One of the key grazing principles cattle producers use to manage their pastures is distribution, often through the use of fences and other permanent or temporary structures. But low-stress cattle herding principles may be just as effective, without the fence, and with less stress to cowboys and livestock.John P Kelly/Getty images

Cattle producers generally agree: Fencing is one of those chores around the ranch that drains time and energy. But fences and other permanent or temporary structures are a key tool in managing grazing distribution in large pastures. What if you could improve your grazing distribution without the fence?

That was the question Mike Williams and Matthew Shapero wanted to research with their three-year grazing study using a low-stress herding technique. Williams runs a cow-calf herd in Los Angeles County, Calif., and represents California cattle producers on the board of directors for U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef. Shapero is the University of California livestock and range adviser for Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. The two presented their key takeaways from this study in a session during the 2023 Cattlemen’s College, in New Orleans.

Fundamentals

Shapero reminded listeners that there are four principles to grazing management:

  1. intensity of grazing

  2. timing and season of use

  3. kind and class of animals grazing

  4. distribution of those animals

  5. In this grazing study, Shapero and Williams were focused on the distribution of cattle across the ranch. Ideally, Shapero explained, a cattle producer’s goal should be to have distribution of grazing animals to extend the use of the whole range resource, without impacting ecologically sensitive spots like riparian areas. But cattle, left to their own devices, tend to loaf in familiar areas and not travel to new parts of the range that they can graze without encouragement.

“Animals’ choice of grazing situations is influenced by topography and elevation, forage quality and quantity at a time of year, maybe even a physical feature like fencing or water, or an attractant feature like salt blocks or shade,” Shapero said.

Now, typical tools that help cattle producers manage distribution are methods like fencing off paddocks within the range, cross-fencing, riparian fencing, and limiting stream water access points, he added. But the pair wanted to study how low-stress herding could achieve the same thing.

Low-stress herding

Shapero explained that low-stress herding on the range is different than working cattle using handling facilities. Your goal isn’t getting them through a chute or loaded onto a trailer in a set time frame, but rather moving the cattle to a location on the range that they aren’t using to benefit their gains and the range resource.

The low-stress approach is a series of steps:

  • Approach the cattle in a calm manner.

  • Gather cattle into a bunch.

  • Trail that bunch to your desired location on the ranch.

And ultimately, do this is a way that the herd chooses on its own to stay in that location and graze, Shapero said.

“The benefits include improved rancher profitability through increasing the number of head per unit area,” he said. But also, he continued, increasing your grazing distribution can protect your water quality and sensitive riparian habitats, improve wildlife habitat, and reduce the fuel loads for catastrophic wildfires.

Application

Williams spent quite a lot of time researching low-stress herding and taking courses from ranchers using the technique themselves. The study took a year of baseline data and then followed with two years of Williams implementing the low-stress herding techniques. They used GPS tracking collars on 12 cows to collect their location, duration at location and more.

In the first year, the collars showed that cows, when left to their own, do not use all the range that is available to them, Shapero said. The herd mostly stayed in two valleys of the range, leaving about a third of the range resource unused.

In the second and third years, Williams would gather the cow herd from the valley floor, timing the herding event to take the cows past a water resource so they could get their fill. Then, he continued to quietly herd them up a canyon into a draw that had plentiful grass, and then leave them there for a day. Once the cattle were used to the herding events, they stayed longer in the areas of the ranch that Williams would herd them to, shown by GPS data.

Williams said he saw cattle that were easier to handle, increased gains, increased conception rates — and perhaps most important, reduced stress in himself and his herd.

The study will continue, and Williams and Shapero have plans to deploy more technology to gather more data for future insights.

About the Author(s)

Jennifer M. Latzke

Editor, Kansas Farmer

Through all her travels, Jennifer M. Latzke knows that there is no place like Kansas.

Jennifer grew up on her family’s multigenerational registered Angus seedstock ranch and diversified farm just north of Woodbine, Kan., about 30 minutes south of Junction City on the edge of the Kansas Flint Hills. Rock Springs Ranch State 4-H Center was in her family’s backyard.

While at Kansas State University, Jennifer was a member of the Sigma Kappa Sorority and a national officer for the Agricultural Communicators of Tomorrow. She graduated in May 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural communications and a minor in animal science. In August 2000 Jennifer started her 20-year agricultural writing career in Dodge City, Kan., on the far southwest corner of the state.

She’s traveled across the U.S. writing on wheat, sorghum, corn, cotton, dairy and beef stories as well as breaking news and policy at the local, state and national levels. Latzke has traveled across Mexico and South America with the U.S. Wheat Associates and toured Vietnam as a member of KARL Class X. She’s traveled to Argentina as one of 10 IFAJ-Alltech Young Leaders in Agricultural Journalism. And she was part of a delegation of AAEA: The Ag Communicators Network members invited to Cuba.

Jennifer’s an award-winning writer, columnist, and podcaster, recognized by the Kansas Professional Communicators, Kansas Press Association, the National Federation of Presswomen, Livestock Publications Council, and AAEA. In 2019, Jennifer reached the pinnacle of achievements, earning the title of “Writer of Merit” from AAEA.

Trips and accolades are lovely, but Jennifer says she is happiest on the road talking to farmers and ranchers and gathering stories and photos to share with readers.

“It’s an honor and a great responsibility to be able to tell someone’s story and bring them recognition for their work on the land,” Jennifer says. “But my role is also evolving to help our more urban neighbors understand the issues our Kansas farmers face in bringing the food and fiber to their store shelves.”

She spends her time gardening, crafting, watching K-State football, and cheering on her nephews and niece in their 4-H projects. She can be found on Twitter at @Latzke.

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