Grazing Management by Species: Cattle

Different livestock species fill different ecological niches and therefore interact differently with pastures, which is why mixed-species grazing is favored by many grazing experts. But whether you intend to keep one species or many on your farm or ranch, you will need to match the needs of the animals to the needs of the forages available to you for best results. This series is intended to help you do just that.

Grazing Management by Species: Cattle

Cattle are the quintessential grazing animal. While many other species will supplement their diet with various weeds, shrubs, and even low-hanging tree branches, cattle mostly consume grass, making them roughly equivalent to bison in the ecosystem.

This is not to say that cattle never eat weeds. On the contrary, cattle from low-maintenance genetics are noted for their ability to control many types of weeds and woody plants. Most cattle also benefit from having some legumes to eat. Nevertheless, the primary food of cattle is grass.

Grazing Behavior

Cattle graze by using their tongue to grab a bunch of grass, pull it into their mouth, and then bite or tear it off. The mouth structure and eating habits of cattle prevent them from grazing close to the ground. Therefore, cattle are ideally suited to tallgrass environments.

While cattle may graze selectively in continuous grazing systems, they are nevertheless among the least selective of grazing animals overall, preferring to mow down wide swaths of forage.

Because cattle are ruminants, they need to spend a considerable amount of time chewing the cud versus actively grazing. It has been estimated that, on average, cattle graze 8 hours, ruminate 8 hours, and sleep 8 hours each day. Cattle that are experiencing physical discomfort, such as heat stress, may spend less time grazing. Under such conditions, they will have a harder time meeting their nutritional needs.

Cattle typically prefer to stay in a more or less tight group, also known as a mob. They often drink water as a group, too, although they may drink individually when kept in smaller paddocks where they can easily see other herd members.

Nutritional Needs

The typical 1,000-pound beef cow with a calf is 1.0 animal unit equivalent (A.U.E.). Cows around 1,500 pounds will be closer to 1.5 A.U.E., while bulls over a ton will be 2.0 A.U.E. Weaned calves are 0.75 A.U.E., and stockers 0.8 are A.U.E.

Body condition scoring (BCS) is a key tool to use when maintaining cattle on pasture. Beef cows should go into the winter with a BCS of around 7; they will then draw on their fat reserves, coming out of the winter at around 5. They should reach 7 again prior to rebreeding for reproductive success.

System Selection

Grazing systems commonly used with cattle include:

  • Continuous. This is very common in extensive rangeland situations where more intensive management is not possible. Overgrazing, selective grazing leading to weed growth, and soil erosion on paths and around water sources are the most likely problems. These challenges diminish on larger acreages, but combine to make continuous grazing a poor choice for smaller properties.
  • Rotational. Less damaging to the land than continuous grazing, but also less demanding on the producer than intensive grazing approaches.
  • Management-intensive. A favorite with grass finishers because it permits rapid weight gain on forage alone. Also well suited to smaller properties due to fewer problems with selective grazing. Requires considerable knowledge.
  • Mob. This ultra-high-density approach to grazing is intended to mimic the natural behavior of bison. Cattle and pastures can both thrive on it, but the system manager must be diligent in maintaining the rotation to ensure animal needs are met and that pastures are not damaged.
  • Strip. Cattle are rapidly rotated through very narrow paddocks (strips) for even higher stock density. Completely eliminates selective grazing habits. Requires the grazier to calculate daily forage needs with accuracy or animal performance will suffer. Forage may be wasted through trampling unless the grazing is planned well. An interesting option for grazing dairy cows that are moved frequently to the milking parlor anyway.

System Design

Water is a tremendous consideration when grazing cattle. Beef cows drink about 20 gallons per day, while dairy cows drink 40 gallons per day. The water must be delivered in a sturdy tank that can handle the abuse it will receive from large animals. However, in most rotational systems, the tank must be portable, as well, unless multiple tanks are used.

Mineral feeders should be rainproof and sturdy. In continuous grazing systems, the mineral feeders must be moved from time to time to reduce soil erosion and manure buildup.

Likewise, fences must be able to withstand abuse. Physical barriers, such as barbed wire, must be rugged enough to endure leaning and scratching. Alternatively, a psychological barrier, such as electrified polytape, can be used to discourage fence contact outright. Be aware that electric fencing is less effective with horned cattle, as they can use their horns to ground the fence without being shocked.

Because cattle are large animals, special facilities are recommended to permit safe handling. This includes a simple corral and a squeeze chute with a head gate. Dairy cattle will require a milking parlor for sanitary reasons, although mobile parlors are available to permit safe milking out in the pasture.

However, cattle have minimal shelter requirements relative to other animals. Most cattle will appreciate shade in the summer, even if they are red. If manure buildup under trees is a concern, consider a portable shade structure designed for rotational grazing. Some type of windbreak is recommended for range herds where wind-driven snow is a problem, while a barn may be necessary in blizzard country to permit humans to safely care for draft or dairy cattle.

Special Considerations

Not all cattle are equally adapted to obtaining most of their nutrition from grazing, although all benefit from access to pasture. High-production dairy cattle, in particular, can be problematic. Selecting cattle from solid grazing genetics is highly recommended for success.

The sheer weight of cattle can be detrimental to pastures without proper management. If allowed to congregate around the water tank or under shade trees, cattle can kill the grass and compact the soil severely. Even a simple rotation will reduce these problems considerably.

Cattle can have a symbiotic relationship with other grazing animals. Alternating paddocks between cattle and either sheep or goats is an effective way to break up parasite life cycles. In areas where predators are a problem, smaller grazing animals can be kept with cattle for protection; cattle breeds with a strong maternal instinct are effective guardians of sheep and other vulnerable animals. Cattle are usually very easy-going around other livestock species, although they may respond in kind if their dominance is challenged.

Complete Series

Grazing Management by Species

Grazing Management by Species

Choosing a Breed of Cattle

By hsotr

Pulling from nearly 20 years of experience, Michelle Lindsey started Homestead on the Range to help Kansans and others around flyover country achieve an abundant country lifestyle. Michelle is the author of four country living books. She is also a serious student of history, specializing in Kansas, agriculture, and the American West. When not gardening or pursuing hobbies ranging from music to cooking to birdwatching, she can usually be found researching or writing about her many interests.