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Strategic Supplement Placement Changes Beef Cow Distribution

The Issue

Reducing the impact of livestock grazing on water quality, aquatic and riparian habitat, and biodiversity is a continuing goal for livestock producers, natural resource managers, and conservation groups. Environmental impacts of livestock grazing are frequently the result of poor livestock distribution. Management practices that alter livestock distribution on the landscape by attracting livestock away from environmentally sensitive areas can effectively reduce these impacts.

However, policy makers, regulators and land managers are often uncertain about the effectiveness of livestock distribution practices and therefore gravitate to the certainty of excluding livestock by fencing or lease termination. This can devastate the economic viability of rangeland livestock enterprises, reducing their competitive ability and adversely impacting the economy of rural communities. Furthermore, livestock exclusion limits our ability to use grazing to manage wildlife habitat, fire fuel loads and weed infestations.

It is crucial that managers, regulators and community watershed groups understand how livestock can be predictably and effectively redistributed so that they do not have undesirable effects in grazed watersheds.

What Has ANR Done?

Three studies in California visually and statistically documented the effectiveness of nutrient supplement placement for changing livestock distribution. Global positioning technology was used to determine beef cow positions during these studies. The first study, in the Sierra Nevada foothills, demonstrated that use of riparian patches could be reduced with strategic placement of dehydrated molasses supplement during the dry season. A later study on an adjacent ranch found that during the dry season, supplement placement effectively redistributed livestock by attracting them into a zone that extended out to about 600 m (1969 ft) from the supplement. In a third study on a coastal ranch in San Luis Obispo County, nutrient supplements were used to successfully attract beef cows into a previously avoided forest adjacent to a grazed grassland.

These studies were conducted by Neil McDougald, Wayne Jensen, and Royce Larsen, farm advisors in Madera, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, in collaboration with Mel George, rangeland management specialist at UC Davis.

The Payoff

Beef Cows Attracted Away from Environmentally Critical Areas

The results of these studies demonstrate that strategic placement of supplement can be an effective tool for altering livestock distribution during the dry season. When green forage is adequate, the supplement sites are less attractive. When supplement is placed in rangeland pastures or allotments, cattle not only congregate at the supplement site but they graze and rest in adjacent areas within 600 m of the supplement site. Supplements can reduce grazing in riparian patches and can attract cattle away from areas around stock-water troughs. In these studies, cattle were attracted more than 1.3 km (0.8 mi) from stock water.

In response to these findings and similar results elsewhere in the west, the USDA Riparian Habitat Management Team of the Conservation Effectiveness Assessment Program will include strategic placement of supplement in its upcoming review of the effectiveness of riparian conservation practices on rangelands required by the U.S. Congress.


Supporting Unit:

UC Rangeland Watershed Program, UC California Rangeland Research and Information Center
Mel George
Extension Rangeland Management Specialist
Department of Plant Sciences
University of California, Davis
One Shields Avenue
Davis, CA 95616
(530) 752-1720