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Targeted cattle grazing for specific management objectives

Mitchell B. Stephenson for Progressive Cattleman Published on 24 May 2017
Cattle graze on a cheatgrass-invaded pasture

When cattle producers hear the term “targeted grazing,” they often think of a herd of goats grazing to control a patch of invasive weeds in an urban environment, but targeted grazing can be used for more purposes, with more types of livestock, and at larger scales.

Targeted livestock grazing is the application of grazing animals at specified season, intensity and duration to achieve a defined vegetation or landscape management objective. To be successful, targeted grazing requires a thorough knowledge of plant growth dynamics and livestock physiology and grazing behavior.

Targeted grazing is a different way of thinking about grazing management, because the grazing animal’s main job is to manipulate and manage vegetation through strategic grazing of a landscape, rather than solely provide livestock production.

However, the necessary goals and economics of livestock production can often be incorporated simultaneously with the application of targeted livestock grazing.

Using grazing for overall goals

The first questions one should ask before adopting targeted grazing treatments is, “What is my overall objective for a specific rangeland, and can I use grazing animals to accomplish this objective?”

Three of the most common management objectives associated with targeted livestock grazing are: 1) invasive plant species control, 2) reduction of fine fuels for wildfire management and 3) wildlife habitat management.

While other management tools can be used to achieve these objectives (e.g., herbicide for invasive weed species, mowing, etc.), the use of grazing animals may provide an economically viable option while still providing a saleable product.

Additionally, on large-scale projects that cover thousands of acres, herbicides or mechanical tools to control vegetation may not be logistically feasible, and grazing animals may be one of the only tools available.

The livestock to use

The second question to ask is, “What type of livestock should I use?” Picking the right type of livestock for a specific targeted grazing job is a crucial step in achieving success. For example, sheep and goats are more likely to consume invasive forb species, such as leafy spurge, compared to cattle, which are physiologically built to consume a diet higher in grasses.

Cattle can be trained and used for controlling invasive forbs, but sheep and goats may provide a better option for targeted grazing when the objective is to remove invasive forbs. Multispecies grazing may be an option to focus grazing on different plant species at different times of the year.

Cattle, with their high selectivity and preference for grasses, may provide a good tool to help with controlling grass species and decreasing the amount of standing, dead biomass in areas at risk of wildfires. The University of Nevada – Reno is currently conducting research looking at the efficacy of grazing on areas invaded with cheatgrass, an invasive annual grass in the Great Basin that is a primary factor in fine-fuel buildup and wildfires.

In this research, cattle are grazed on cheatgrass in the fall and early winter to reduce the amount of biomass left standing. During a three-year study, dry, senesced cheatgrass stubble provided over 450 pounds per acre of forage to cattle in a highly invaded area.

While typically low in quality, it can still provide a viable forage resource with the right protein supplementation, especially when grazed by dry cows in the fall and winter. Cattle grazing on the dormant cheatgrass maintained body condition score and either removed or trampled as much as 70 to 80 percent of the standing cheatgrass fine-fuel biomass, thereby aiding in the reduction of fine-fuel loads and creating a potential firebreak.

Achieving the long-term plan

The third question to ask when considering targeted livestock grazing is, “How can I manage my grazing to achieve my objective?” Applying grazing animals to a particular area and getting them to eat the targeted vegetation, and often not overconsume non-targeted plants and desirable vegetation, is one of the most challenging components of targeted grazing.

At small scales, fencing can be used to focus grazing on a specific targeted area until the desired level of grazing is reached. However, this is problematic on extensive rangelands, especially in areas with rough topography and limited water availability.

Self-limiting protein supplement delivery methods such as low-moisture blocks/tubs or liquid-based tanks, which require cattle to return frequently to a specific location, can be successful methods in modifying grazing distribution and targeting livestock grazing to a specific area.

Periodically moving supplements to different areas allows a grazing manager the option of focusing grazing at multiple strategic locations in a pasture. Using supplements to alter grazing location is typically only successful during the dormant season when nutrients in the available forage are limited.

With the understanding that specific grazing management can influence vegetation characteristics and alter landscapes, rangeland managers can develop plans and successfully apply targeted grazing. It is important to remember that targeted grazing is not always a single-year fix, and it may take several years to realize the desired results.

Targeted grazing also may not be the best option for every situation. Grazing managers should consider all management options and their potential combined effects when managing a landscape for specific objectives. However, targeted grazing can be an important tool in a rangeland manager’s toolbox to manage rangelands and improve sustainability.  end mark

PHOTO: Cattle graze on a cheatgrass-invaded pasture in northern Nevada. Photo provided by Mitchell Stephenson. Photo provided by Mitchell Stephenson.

Mitchell B. Stephenson
  • Mitchell B. Stephenson

  • Assistant Professor – Range Management Specialist
  • University of Nebraska – Lincoln Panhandle Research & Extension Center
  • Email Mitchell B. Stephenson

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