Never forget, notes Cornell Professor of Forage Management Jerry Cherney, that the relationship between grazing cattle and their grass is one of predator and prey. Like any meat-eating predator, cattle hunt where the hunting's easiest. On hilly range, that usually means they linger within a mile of water, and as near as the food supply allows, to shade.
The spot-grazing that results creates several problems for producers. In fact, it is uneven grazing distribution rather than too many cattle that causes most overgrazing problems in western range-lands, according to Derek Bailey with Montana State. Those problems include:
- Forage isn't used fully, uniformly and to highest profit. Cattle often congregate in lowlands along streams and overgraze that vegetation, even while abundant quality forage goes unused on uplands.
- The resulting high-traffic watering areas are subject both to pollution and erosion. Trampling by cattle and wildlife can reduce stream bank stability and increase erosion.
- Nutrients returned to the soil through manure are not spread to their best effect.
Spreading the utilization of range land forage across the landscape usually prevents the heavy use associated with concentrated grazing. When producers successfully even out distribution, the resulting light or moderate forage use allows plants to grow more vigorously, maintaining or even increasing cover.
Several tools have been identified over the years to improve distribution:
- Fencing and herding. Numerous studies show that when pastures are fenced into controlled paddocks, and cattle are herded at a relatively high stocking rate, they will reduce their time spent resting near water and shade where overgrazing occurs.
- Water placement. Spacing water supplies – if practical – can help even out grazing patterns.
- Fertilization and renovation. Improving range with selected species of native and tame grasses as well as strategic fertilization can help stretch the forage base located at natural grazing hotspots.
- Salting. Strategic placement of salt/mineral also draws cattle from water, evens out grazing pressure and widens the area of grazing. Judicious salting has been shown to increase carrying capacity as much as 19 percent.
Each of those solutions, however, creates its own set of problems. Riding cattle is labor-intensive. Fertilization is expensive and usually short term. Water developments and fencing are expensive and often impractical in range settings.
- Low-moisture block supplements. Research suggests low-moisture block supplements help to cost-effectively distribute grazing on open ranges.
How to improve grazing distribution
Strategic placement of supplement has been suggested as one tool to improve grazing distribution. In fact, past research has shown grazing near riparian areas dropped dramatically when supplement was moved to areas that were previously underutilized. However, the difficulty in delivering supplement cost-effectively has often made its use as a grass-management tool impractical.
Low-moisture molasses-based high-protein supplement blocks are highly palatable, easy to deliver by four-wheeler, trailer or pickup truck and can be placed and self-fed in rougher terrain than liquid or dry supplements. They offer managers the potential to lure cattle to more rugged topography than is practical with other types of supplement.
Derek Bailey, while at Montana State, conducted a study during the fall and winter of 1997 to evaluate that potential. The study, based on two ranches near Havre and Cascade, Montana, measured forage use and grazing patterns in a 640-acre foothills pasture varying from 3,800 to 4,200 feet elevation, an 800-acre foothills pasture varying from 3,500 to 4,000 feet, and a 1,620-acre mountain pasture varying from 4,900 to 5,500 feet. After discarding both riparian areas and those with greater than 40 percent slope, Bailey's team divided the remaining ground into moderate and difficult terrain, platted into 67- to 135-acre sub-units, which were then randomly assigned to receive either supplement or no supplement.
Bailey carefully sub-divided the grazing test area so his team could compare the effect on grazing caused by supplementation under similar terrain, weather, cattle and management against non-supplemented control areas. "Being able to compare against a control is what gives us good real-life, solid data," Bailey noted. "We saw immediately the tight control aspect was what set this experiment apart from others in the past," said Mark Robbins, Research Coordinator for Ridley Block Operations, which helped support the study.
Every 7 to 10 days, low-moisture cooked molasses blocks were placed in the supplemented sub-units. Salt was also placed at half of the sites in both sub-units. The research team then measured differences in forage utilization by measuring stubble height as well as by clipping and weighing, counting the number of fecal pats both before and after supplement and salt placement and counting cattle visiting the sites. They found:
- More cattle were observed in areas with supplement (32 percent) than in control areas (3 percent).
- The increase in fecal pats was greater in areas with supplement (3.3 pats/100 square meters) than control areas (0.5) indicating greater use and more time spent there.
- Change in forage utilization was greater in areas with supplement (17 percent) than in control areas (-1 percent). For supplemented areas, the increase in forage utilization was greater in moderate terrain than in difficult terrain.
- Consumption of cooked molasses supplement was consistent across all terrains with the exception of steep terrain in one pasture (0.34 lb/hd/d). It ranged from 0.63 to 0.85 pound per-head, per-day in the other areas.
- Cattle consumed more salt near supplement than in control areas. But providing salt did not affect where cattle grazed in this study.
Bailey's work demonstrates placing cooked molasses supplement blocks in under-utilized range land can be an important tool for improving uniformity of grazing by beef cows in foothills range land during the fall and early winter.
"This study clearly demonstrates that producers now have a chance to open up more areas within these mountain pastures by using supplementation," Bailey notes.
CRYSTALYX: The ideal tool for improved grazing
CRYSTALYX® Brand Supplements are a low-moisture blend of molasses solids, proteins, hydrolyzed vegetable oil, vitamins and trace minerals. A carefully controlled, technically advanced cooking process is used to protect key nutrients. The result is a highly palatable, nutritionally-fortified supplement that dissolves slowly as cattle lick the surface. It's naturally self-limiting and cannot be bitten, chewed or over-consumed. CRYSTALYX Brand Supplements are weatherproof so there is no supplement wasted due to rain or wind. These supplements are virtually labor-free: simply place the returnable steel half-barrel near water and grazing areas and let cattle lick away. Cattle will visit the barrel numerous times throughout the day, consuming essential nutrients for optimum fiber digestion, growth and efficiency. That's why we call CRYSTALYX Brand Supplements the continuous nutrient availability system.
Most big block supplements offer the "one-product-fits-all" approach to your feeding needs. Not so with CRYSTALYX Brand Supplements. No other manufacturer offers such a wide choice of product formulations designed for those special feeding situations.
Depending on the type of cattle, phase of production, season of the year and specific feeding conditions, there's a CRYSTALYX Brand Supplement to fit your special needs.
CRYSTALYX Brand Supplements are NOT seasonal products. They should be fed throughout the year to provide nutrients as determined by seasons and pasture conditions.