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A g r i c u l t u r a l I n n o v a t i o n s

S e l e c t i n g C a t t l e t o I m p r o v e G r a z i n g D i s t r i b u t i o n

P a t t e r n s , R a n g e l a n d H e a l t h a n d W a t e r Q u a l i t y



ivestock grazing distribution is a critical concern for graz-

ing lands, especially on extensive and rugged pastures.

Rangeland health, riparian area condition, water quality, fish-

eries habitat, and threatened and endangered species are all

affected by uneven grazing patterns. Cattle may more heavily

graze areas with gentle terrain near water than rugged terrain

or areas far from water, often preferring riparian areas where

they spend a disproportionate amount of time compared to

uplands [1]. Yet, concentrated grazing, especially in riparian

zones, may reduce vegetative cover and increase soil erosion

[2, 3]. Often, extensive and rugged pastures that experience

problems associated with grazing have sufficient forage, but

suffer from adverse impacts to natural resources from local-

ized heavy grazing. The key to resolving such problems is to

use pastures as evenly as possible.

Most of the management approaches currently used to in-

crease grazing uniformity, such as water developments and

fencing, can resolve livestock grazing distribution problems on

both private and public lands. However, these practices usu-

ally require large capital expenditures. As a result, ranchers

and land managers are often reluctant to develop water and

build new fences. Less expensive solutions, such as salting

away from water, are usually not effective enough to suffi-

ciently alter cattle grazing patterns [4, 5]. New management

techniques are needed

Selecting cattle with desirable grazing patterns and culling

cattle with undesirable grazing patterns has been suggested as

a tool for improving distribution. Research conducted in

southern Idaho found that cattle maintained certain home

ranges, some grazing primarily uplands and others grazing

(Introduction continued on page 2)

Inside this fact sheet:

# Introduction

# Management Implications

# SARE Research Synopsis

# References

SARE Agricultural Innovations are based on

knowledge gained from SARE -funded projects.

Written for farmers and agricultural educators,

these peer -reviewed fact sheets provide practical,

hands -on information to integrate well -researched

sustainable strategies into farming and ranching

systems. The articles are written by project

coordinators and published by SARE.

Western United States.

Especially on rugged terrain or extensive pastures

G E O G R A P H I C R A N G E :

F a c t S h e e t Practical applications for

s u s t a i n a b l e a g r i c u l t u r e

PDF available at

Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education

Derek W. Bailey

Animal and Range Sciences Dept.,

New Mexico State University

Harv VanWagoner

Northern Agricultural Research Center,

Montana State University

Robin Weinmeister

Northern Agricultural Research Center,

Montana State University

Hereford cow at Ross Ranch resting during midday.

Cow activity and position was monitored with

GPS collars.

Selecting Cattle to Improve Grazing Distribution Patterns, Rangeland Health and Water Quality SARE 2

meadows and riparian areas [6]. Thus, removing

animals that concentrate in over -utilized areas and

selecting animals that travel farther from water and

up steeper slopes has the potential to improve live-

stock grazing distribution.

This project is the first and only study that we are

aware of that has evaluated whether grazing distri-

bution has the potential to be improved through in-

tensive selection. The study was replicated and the

results showed that selection for distribution has

great promise and that additional research is war-

ranted. However, there is a great deal more to learn,

and many questions must be answered. Below are a

few ideas that may be useful to ranchers grazing ex-

tensive or rugged rangeland that resulted from this


Management Implications

Select adapted animals for seed

stock or replacements

Results from this project show that cattle breeds

developed in mountainous terrain utilize rugged

rangeland more evenly than breeds developed in

more gentle terrain. Ranchers in mountainous

rangeland area may be able to alleviate some of their grazing

distribution problems by incorporating breeds such Taren-

taise and Salers that were developed in rugged terrain into

their breeding programs. Two breeds developed in different

parts of Europe as well as their crosses were observed at the

Thackeray Ranch during this first part of this study. Taren-

taise cattle developed in the French Alps consistently climbed

higher and used higher elevations (greater vertical distance to

water) than Herefords that were developed in more gentle

terrain in England [7]. On average, Tarentaise cows used ter-

rain that was 32 feet higher than Hereford cows. This may

not seem that great of difference until you consider that 32

feet of vertical distance could make the difference between

grazing upland slopes and grazing riparian areas or sensitive

coulee bottoms.

In addition to their use of rough topography, these breeds are

also known for favorable maternal characteristics. In hot de-

sert rangeland, ranchers may want to use breeds with Brah-

man breeding so that the cattle are adapted to hot, dry cli-

mates and more willing to travel far from water

Daughters of the Hereford, Tarentaise and Hereford x Tar-

entaise cows were evaluated in a later part this study. Sires of

these daughters were Angus, Charolais, Piedmontese and Sal-

ers bulls. Cows sired by Piedmontese and Charolais bulls

were observed farther horizontally from water in foothill pas-

tures than cows sired by Angus bulls [8, 9]. Using an index of

terrain use, Piedmontese -sired cows tended to use more rug-

ged terrain than Angus -sired cows. Piedmontese cattle were

developed in the foothills of the Italian Alps, while Angus

cattle were developed in eastern Scotland. These differences

in sire breeds are especially surprising considering that only

half of the cow’s genotype was contributed by the bull.

Figure 1. Example of the potential differences in distribution patterns

of cows grazing similar pastures during similar time periods. The size

of these two study pastures were roughly 420 acres each with changes

in topographic relief over 330 feet. Dots represent locations of a hill

climber cow ( ▲) and bottom dweller cow ( ▲) recorded at 10 minute

intervals over a two -week period during August. Blue lines ( ~ ) are

locations of streams and were the only water sources in the pastures.

Research technician, Robin Weinmeister, records the position

of a Tarentaise cow during an early morning scan sample.

This cow was also tracked with a GPS collar, which recorded

her position at 10 -minute intervals.

Selecting Cattle to Improve Grazing Distribution Patterns, Rangeland Health and Water Quality SARE 3

Other research has shown that calves learn where to graze

from their mothers [10]. Anecdotal information suggests that

problems may arise when cattle developed in gentle terrain or

irrigated pastures are released into arid or rugged rangeland.

In such situations, cattle may not venture far from water or

up steep slopes. When purchasing female replacements, pro-

ducers should try to find animals that were raised in terrain

and vegetation that is similar to what they will be grazing.

Cull animals with undesirable grazing

patterns and select animals with

desirable patterns

Individual cows within a herd can have very different grazing

patterns. Culling or removing cows that prefer bottoms and

riparian areas and spend a disproportionate amount of time in

sensitive rangeland can potentially increase uniformity and

sustainability of grazing (Figure 1). The problem with this

approach is accurately identifying cows with undesirable

grazing patterns and determining how many cows should be


The best time to observe cattle to categorize their grazing

patterns as desirable or undesirable is when animals are first

released into a pasture. Observations also should be collected

during the early morning when cows begin grazing (e.g., 0600

to 0900). Cattle typically graze for two periods (or bouts)

each day, during the morning and evening. At mid -day, cows

are often resting near water, especially during the summer.

Research conducted as part of this project showed that the

cow’s location during the early morning was a good indicator

of where she grazed during the current morning grazing bout

as well as the previous evening grazing period. Cattle grazing

patterns also can vary greatly form day to day, so to get an

accurate estimate of a cow’s grazing patterns, several observa-

tions are needed. In our study, we observed cows in multiple

pastures and recorded their location at least 10 times in each

pasture. If cows are observed on multiple occasions in bot-

toms or riparian areas during the early morning shortly after

being turned into a pasture (first third or first half), it likely

that their grazing patterns may be undesirable and could be

considered for culling.

Determining how many cows should be culled is a difficult

question that should be researched more thoroughly. In this

project, we separated our cow herd in half, which is equiva-

lent to a 50% culling rate. A 15% culling rate is typically rec-

ommended for most cattle producers. Many other factors

other than distribution such as pregnancy status (open or

pregnant) should be considered when determining which

cows to cull. It may be difficult to make appreciable differ-

ence in grazing distribution, because only a limited number

of cattle could be culled for distribution based on normal

ranching practices. If grazing distribution is a major issue for

a ranch, more emphasis on selection for desirable grazing pat-

terns may be practical. Preliminary analyses have shown that

grazing patterns of cows sired by different bulls within the

same breed had different grazing patterns. If additional re-

search shows that grazing distribution can be inherited, graz-

ing distribution could be used as a trait for bull selection.

Much more rapid progress can be made through bull selec-

tion than can be made from culling cows.

Implications for riparian area management

In critical areas such as riparian zones, stubble heights were 5

inches in pastures grazed by hill climbers and only 3 inches in

pastures grazed by bottom dweller cows (Figure 1). The dif-

ferences in stubble heights observed between treatments in

this study would be economically important for many public -

land ranchers. A standard for grazing on riparian areas is of-

ten forage stubble height of 4 to 5 inches [11, 12]. If stubble

heights fall below the standard, livestock are often required to

be moved to a new pasture or off the allotment. In this study,

pastures grazed by hill climbers had acceptable grazing levels

based on this standard, while grazing levels in pastures grazed

by bottom dwellers were not acceptable. Forage utilization

measurements on upland slopes also suggested that hill

climbers used rough terrain more uniformly than bottom

dwellers. Forage utilization in pastures grazed by hill climb-

ers was affected less by slope, horizontal distance to water,

and vertical distance to water than pastures grazed by bottom

dwellers. For example, forage utilization declined by 0.33 per-

centage points for every degree increase in slope in bottom

dweller pastures, and forage utilization only declined 0.25

Cows from the hill climber treatment resting on a ridge at the

Thackeray Ranch.

Selecting Cattle to Improve Grazing Distribution Patterns, Rangeland Health and Water Quality SARE 4

percentage points for every degree increase in slope in hill

climber pastures. These results demonstrate that selection for

grazing distribution has the potential to improve conditions of

riparian and other sensitive areas that have been heavily

grazed in the past and to increase the use of upland slopes

that previously received little grazing.

The impact of this proposed practice (selection for distribu-

tion) on performance of the herd is an important considera-

tion for ranchers. Research con-

ducted in this SARE project

found that the location where

cows grazed was not related to

their pregnancy rates, weight or

body condition score. In addi-

tion, cattle that used high and

steep terrain had similar calf

weaning weights as cows that

remained in gentle terrain near

water. Selection of animals that

spend more time on high up-

land slopes and culling cows

that graze in lower terrain near

water should not have any ad-

verse impact on calf growth or

reproductive performance of

the cows.

Summary and application

When cows with clearly undesirable grazing patterns are

identified, culling the animals or separating them from herds

that graze rugged pastures should increase uniformity of graz-

ing with more use of upland slopes and less use of bottoms

and riparian areas. Multiple observations are needed to char-

acterize the grazing patterns of individual cows. Observations

should be recorded in the early morning when cattle are graz-

ing and more emphasis should be made during the first third

of the grazing season. Using breeds that were developed in

topography and climate that is similar to rangeland conditions

of the ranch also should help resolve livestock distribution

problems. Although results from this project clearly showed

that selection has the potential to solve many issues associated

with grazing, much more research is needed before this prac-

tice can be widely recommended and implemented.

SARE Research Synopsis

The overall goal of this project was to determine if selection

had the potential to effectively alter cattle grazing patterns in

rugged rangeland. Specifically our objectives were to:

1) Evaluate the effect of cattle breed on grazing patterns to

determine if some breeds are more adaptable to mountainous

terrain or extensive pastures; 2) determine if removing cattle

with undesirable grazing distribution patterns could result in

a more uniform use of forage in foothills rangeland; and, 3)

determine the relationships among individual grazing distri-

bution patterns and livestock production traits such as calf

weaning weight, pregnancy rate and mature cow weight.

Study sites

Research was conducted at the Thackeray Ranch (part of

Northern Agricultural Research Center) and at the Ross

Ranch (cooperating private

ranch owned and managed by

Don and Warren Ross), in

north central Montana in the

Bear’s Paw Mountains. To-

pography at both ranches in-

cluded steep and gentle

slopes. Vegetation was domi-

nated by perennial cool -

season grasses with a few ar-

eas of shrubs and trees. We

attempted to use

“management -sized” pastures

and cattle herd sizes. At both

ranches, study pastures were

at least 200 acres and most

were 400 acres. Forty to 90

cows grazed in each pasture.


Before the study, cows were observed by researchers on

horseback and ranked by terrain use. Based on previous ob-

servations, one half of each herd was classified as “hill climb-

ers.” Hill climbers were cows that spent more time grazing

steeper slopes and higher elevations during observations.

Cows in the remaining half of each herd were classified as

“bottom dwellers” and included cows that used gentler slopes

and areas closer to water. At each ranch, hill climbers and

bottom dwellers grazed in separate, but similar, pastures dur-

ing 1999 to 2001 at the Thackeray Ranch and 2000 and 2001

at the Ross Ranch. Eight paired comparisons of hill climbers

and bottom dwellers were completed (replicated in time and


Horseback cattle observations

Locations of cattle at the Thackeray Ranch were recorded by

horseback observers during the summers of 1997 through

2001. At the Ross Ranch, cattle were observed from 1999 to

2001. The procedure used for recording cattle locations using

horseback observers was identical in all years and study sites.

Two to four observers on horseback rode a pasture during a 1

- to 2.5 -hour period during the early morning grazing period

(0600 to 0900) and attempted to record the location of every

Derek Bailey, principal investigator, remains in touch with

the office on his cell phone while recording cattle locations.

Selecting Cattle to Improve Grazing Distribution Patterns, Rangeland Health and Water Quality SARE 5

cow in the pasture. Observers recorded about 87% of the ani-

mals in the herd during an observation period. Cows in each

pasture were observed two to four times each week. These

observations were pooled and used to calculate the average

slope, horizontal distance to water and vertical distance to wa-

ter for each cow in each pasture during each year of the study.

Tracking with GPS collars

Some randomly selected cows at the Thackeray Ranch were

tracked using Lotek GPS 2000 collars. These collars recorded

cow locations with an accuracy within 22 feet [13] using the

Global Positioning System (GPS). Cows were tracked for

three to 15 consecutive days based on battery life.

Vegetative measurements

Forage utilization was measured after grazing throughout up-

land areas in each set of pastures. Forage stubble heights were

measured in predetermined locations that historically received

heavy grazing use and were considered sensitive areas. These

areas included riparian zones and coulee bottoms.

Statistical analyses

All comparisons of telemetry data, horseback observations and

stubble heights in sensitive areas between the hill climber and

bottom dweller treatments were based on pasture averages

each year. Analyses of upland forage utilization data compared

the relationships between forage use and terrain use for each



1. Smith, M. A., J. D. Rodgers, J. L. Dodd, and Q. D. Skinner. (1992) “Declining forage availability effects on utilization a nd

community selection by cattle.” Journal of Range Management, 45: 391 -395.

2. Blackburn, W. H. (1984) “Impacts of grazing intensity and specialized grazing systems on watershed characteristics and re-

sponses.” Pages 927 -933 in Developing Strategies for Rangeland Management. Natural Resources Council / National Acad-

emy of Science, Westview Press, Boulder, CO.

3. Kauffman, J. B., W. C. Krueger, and M. Vavra. (1983) “Impacts of cattle grazing streambanks in northeastern Oregon.”

Journal of Range Management, 36: 683 -685.

4. Bailey, D.W. and Welling, G.R. (1999) “Modification of cattle grazing distribution with dehydrated molasses supplement.”

Journal of Range Management, 52: 575 -582.

5. Ganskop, D. (2001) “Manipulating cattle distribution with salt and water in large arid -land pastures: A GPS/GIS assess-

ment.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 73:251 -262.

6. Howery, L. D., F. D. Provenza, R.E. Banner, and C. B. Scott. (1996) “Differences in home range and habitat use among

individuals in a cattle herd.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 49: 305 -320.

7. Bailey, D. W., D. D. Kress, D. C. Anderson, D. L. Boss, and E. T. Miller. (2001) “Relationship between terrain use and per-

formance of beef cows grazing foothill rangeland.” Journal of Animal Science, 79:1883 -1891.

8. Bailey, D. W., D. D. Kress, D. C. Anderson, D. L. Boss,, and K. C. Davis. (2001) “Evaluation of F1 crosses from Angus,

Charolais, Salers, Piedmontese, Tarentaise and Hereford sires V: Grazing distribution patterns.” Proceedings, Western Sec-

tion of the American Society of Animal Science, 52:110 -113.

9. VanWagoner, H. C., D. W. Bailey, D. D. Kress, D. C. Anderson, and K. C. Davis. (2005) “Differences among beef sire

breeds and relationships between terrain use and performance when daughters graze foothill rangelands as cows.” Applied

Animal Behaviour Science (accepted 2/05).

This fact sheet is based on a SARE -funded project.

For more information, please visit >

Project Reports > Search the database

for project #SW98 -064

Selecting Cattle to Improve Grazing Distribution Patterns, Rangeland Health and Water Quality SARE 6

SARE Publication #05AGI2005

(References continued)

10. Howery, L. D., F. D. Provenza, R. E. Banner, and C .B. Scott. (1998) “Social and environmental factors influence cattle

distribution on rangeland.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 55:231 -244.

11. Chaney, E., W. Elmore, and W. S. Platts. (1993) “Managing change: livestock grazing on western riparian areas.” Eagle,

ID: EPA Publication, Northwest Resource Information Center. 31 p.

12. Hall, F. C. and L. Bryant. (1995) “Herbaceous stubble height as a warning of impending cattle grazing damage to riparian

areas.” General Technical Report PNW -GTR -362. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific

Northwest Research Station. 9 p.

13. Moen, R., J. Pastor, and Y. Cohen. (1997) “Accuracy of GPS telemetry collar locations with differential correction.” Jour-

nal of Wildlife Management, 61:530 -539.


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