Head ’em up to other grassHead ’em up to other grass
Improving cattle grazing distribution through herding techniques can boost a pasture’s sustainability.
April 19, 2023
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.
Shapero reminded listeners that there are four principles to grazing management:
intensity of grazing
timing and season of use
kind and class of animals grazing
distribution of those animals
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.
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.
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.
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