Managing Livestock Distribution on Rangelands

May 12, 2011 Print Friendly and PDF

Grazing distribution is a major concern for livestock and land managers. Animals clearly prefer some grazing sites over others, increasing the grazing pressure on used areas and leaving other areas underutilized. Spatial and temporal distribution of livestock is partly a function of rangeland resources, heterogeneity of vegetation types, forage abundance, and watering points. Water development, supplementary feed placement, and fencing are several tools that can help improve livestock distribution.

Main Factors That Affect Livestock Grazing Distribution

  • Animal behavior — Animals make conscious decisions about where to graze based on their perceptions of an area, their knowledge of plants consumed in the past, and their memory of potential choices.
  • Distance to water — Access to water is critical for grazing animals; therefore, the location and number of watering points are the main factors in determining movement, distribution, and concentration of grazing animals.
  • Topography — Hilly, mountainous, or rocky terrain can be difficult for grazing animals to traverse. The effect of topography varies with the kind of grazing animal.
  • Vegetation type — The distribution of grazing animals is strongly influenced by their forage preferences. Neighboring plant communities may receive different grazing pressure because they contain different kinds of plants or the plants differ in palatability.
  • Weather — Grazing animals must regulate body temperature and therefore seek out areas that provide thermal regulation such as shade or windbreaks.

Managing Livestock Distribution

Each management unit has its own unique set of distribution problems; however, several tools and strategies can be employed to draw animals away from preferred areas and into underutilized areas.

  1. Water — Often the most effective way to improve the uniformity of grazing is to increase the number and/or change the location of watering points. Animals should not have to travel more than a quarter to a half mile from forage to water in steep, rough terrain or more than one mile on level or gently rolling ground. Animals will overuse sites near water locations rather than walk greater distances to abundant forage; therefore, the development of additional water sources can improve animal performance by making additional forage available.
  2. Kind of livestock — The species and class of livestock grazed should be matched to the vegetation and the topography. Cattle prefer grasses and rarely use slopes over 10% when given a choice. Sheep utilize a variety of plants, while goats prefer shrubs and forbs. Sheep and goats are also more surefooted and agile, enabling them to use steeper and more rugged topography. The class (age and stage of reproduction) of grazing animals should also be considered. For example, in rugged terrain, yearling cattle may be more appropriate than cows with calves as they are more agile and tend to travel farther. In some cases, the opposite may be true, depending on the situation.
  3. Supplements — The number and location of supplements including salt, mineral, and feeds can be used to entice livestock away from overgrazed areas and onto underutilized ones. Protein and energy supplements are generally more effective in altering grazing distribution than salt alone. Supplements should be purposefully located away from water as animals tend to return to grazing following consumption rather than to water.
  4. Fencing — The most direct way for managers to alter animal distribution is through fencing. Fences can subdivide large pastures into more manageable units or delineate areas requiring different grazing management strategies, including riparian areas or irrigated pastures. However, the expense of fencing, the need for additional water sources, and the subsequent impact on wildlife mobility should be considered before installing fencing. In general, fencing should be the "last resort" to solving animal distribution problems.

Improved grazing distribution can result in an increase in stocking rate because more of the available forage in a pasture is grazed and more forage is produced in formerly overused areas.

For more information, see Horn, B. 2005. Livestock Grazing Distribution. University of Wyoming Extension Fact Sheet MP-111.05

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.