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Cattle can learn to “mix the best with the rest,” rather than “eat the best and leave the rest,” according to a rangeland extension specialist from Utah State University. Beth Burritt shared plans for a study that will take place at the James C. Hageman Sustainable Agriculture Research Extension Center (SAREC) to evaluate the profitability of two feeding systems based on animal behavior.
    Burritt laid out plans for the study during the University of Wyoming SAREC Open House and Field Tour in Lingle on Aug. 23.
Research studies profitability
    The two-year study will be held for 60 days each year and involves two groups of feeder cattle that will be fed two separate ways. The control group will receive a ration based on National Research Center (NRC) requirements, while the second group will be fed a ration based on choice – alfalfa hay, barley and corn. The animals will be fed as a group mimicking a feedlot situation. The first year, the cattle will be provided by UW, and the second year the cattle will be provided by four producers from Wyoming and one from Utah.
    The object of the study is to evaluate the profitability of the two feeding systems to see what sources can be used and which are most economical.
    “The idea is, if you are a producer and you have a choice between selling your grain or feeding it to your cattle, can you put out an appropriate free choice feed and let the cattle develop their own ration? If they don’t know what the best feed is, expose them to a variety to see what they like best,” Burritt said.
    The rangeland specialist shared some information from other research indicating that when presented with a mixed ration versus choice, animals consumed the same protein to energy ratio and had the same average daily gain, but the choice group had slightly better feed efficiency.
    The choice ration also cost 19 percent less to feed than a mixed ration, each animal could meet its individual needs, and they didn’t have to eat the same food day after day, she explained.
BEHAVE project
    During her presentation, Burritt shared 30 years of research from Utah State University (USU) studies addressing why livestock eat what they do and live where they live. The program for this research is known as BEHAVE (Behavioral Education for Human, Animals, Vegetation and Ecosystem Management).
    BEHAVE searches for new ways to manage livestock. The focus of this research is to understand the principles of behavior that may enable managers to develop livestock that fit rangelands, rather than changing the rangelands to fit livestock, Burritt shared.
    Research conducted at USU has developed ways for ranchers to better utilize their rangelands by teaching livestock to eat weeds and sagebrush, turning them into valuable forage, she said.
    Many of the early studies of livestock described their behavior as set-in-stone, Burritt said.
    “Behavior is flexible and can be shaped throughout the animal’s life. Behavior relies on consequences. If an animal engages in a behavior, and the consequences are good, the chances that that animal will engage in that behavior again increase,” she explained. “On the other hand, if they engage in that behavior, and the consequences are bad, the changes they will engage in that behavior again decreases.”
Mother knows best
    After 30 years of research, scientists have found the number one impact on diet selection is “mother knows best,” Burritt shared. “(The mother) is a role model for diet selection. Because of what she forages, she has been able to grow up and reproduce.”
    To back up this research, Burritt shared a study from Australia where at six weeks of age, lambs were divided into three groups – those the had exposure to wheat, no exposure to wheat or exposure to wheat with their mothers. Three months later, the lambs were tested, and those with no exposure or were tested alone wouldn’t eat the wheat, while those that had first tested the wheat with their mothers would. At 34 months of age, the three groups were tested again.
    “The ones that had been exposed with their mother remembered wheat was a good food and would eat it. The other two groups ate very little or none,” she said.
    “Every animal is the sum of its genetics plus experiences in its social (mom and peers) and physical (where it was raised) environment,” she continued. “These experiences can cause changes in physiology, the nervous system and physical structures of the body. Animals change throughout their lives based on their experiences. However, experiences early in life often have the greatest effect on animals and can even affect gene expression.”
Teach them young
    Burritt asked the group of nearly 100 producers, do animals need to learn how to eat? To demonstrate her point, she shared a video of a young goat raised on alfalfa pellets trying to figure out how to eat alfalfa off a plant.
    “He knows it’s food, but he doesn’t know how to eat it off the plant,” she said.
    In other studies, Burritt said researchers have found the younger animals are when they are exposed to foraging skills, the better foragers they will be. They learn from their mother, because she’s efficient, the rangeland extension specialist explained. She knows which plants are harmful and which are nutritious, and she passes this knowledge on to her offspring because it grazes close to her, eating the foods she eats and avoiding those she doesn’t, she added.
    After weaning, animals sample novel foods carefully, and if they experience a positive consequence, they may increase consumption of that food. If the consequences are negative because the food is toxic or contains too many or not enough nutrients, they may avoid that food or reduce intake.
    Burritt shared another study where animals sampled a new food, then were put under deep anesthesia and fed lithium chloride, which will make the animal nauseous. Despite being under anesthesia until the drug had passed, the animals still avoided the new food because of the negative feedback from the toxin – even though they were asleep, she said.
Training livestock
    Burritt told producers they may be able to encourage livestock to eat certain plants by providing supplements. As an example, she said sheep, cattle and goats will eat more sagebrush, despite its terpene content, if they are supplemented with protein and energy. Similarly, researchers have developed a process to teach livestock how to eat some weeds in just five days.
    “When weeds become a forage, we can manage grazing to reduce their abundance, use of herbicides and cost of weed control,” she said.
    Some of the weeds cattle have been taught to consume successfully include Canadian, distaff and Italian thistle, leafy spurge, spotted and diffuse knapweed and black mustard.
    For more information contact Burritt at 435-797-3576 or by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Although for some time the common belief was that Wyoming was too high and too dry for a substantial cheatgrass problem, it’s since been established that downy brome, or cheatgrass, is a problem in the state.
“We used to think cheatgrass was confined to low elevations, but have now found dense stands well over 9,000 feet, so we know it’s moving upward,” says UW Extension Weed Specialist Brian Mealor.
This is significant, he notes, because planning a grazing system with cheatgrass as a major part of the forage base is very unpredictable.
Cheatgrass is readily identifiable and is known as downy brome because of the fine hairs on the plant. That, and the purple color and nodding seed heads tend to stand out.
“When entire landscapes turn purple it’s hard to miss,” says Mealor. “One thing we often see are firm, dense stands of seedlings, and they can have a second flush of germination in the spring, which makes it a challenge to control. It also doesn’t take much moisture in the fall to increase the amount of cheatgrass.”
Mealor says the grass is incredibly competitive, reducing the growth of crested wheatgrass and bluebunch wheatgrass, and its entire life is about producing seeds – from 13,000 to 20,000 seeds per square meter.
“Plant densities range from 10,000 to 13,000 plants per square meter, and that doesn’t allow much room for anything else,” he says, adding that, while the problem is most seen in the Great Basin, Wyoming does see large monocultures of cheatgrass.
Although published literature suggests cheatgrass seed is viable for around five years in the soil, most will germinate within one year if conditions are right. Mealor says the difficulty with the data is that it’s hard to pin down accurate seed longevity times, and that recent work suggests a small portion of the seed might be viable for up to nine years or more.
“That persistent seed bank is a problem we have with reinvasion after control,” says Mealor.
He adds that the rule of thumb for rangeland managers is that they should begin to be concerned and to implement treatment when native grasses number less than three plants per square meter.
“At what point in time do we decide to implement cheatgrass control on rangeland?” asks Mealor. “As soon as we see it? I don’t know that there’s enough money in the Federal Reserve to start doing that across the state, and one thing we’re trying to move forward is identifying some of those thresholds.”
He says that cheatgrass at minimal densities will allow for establishment of native seeds, and that it doesn’t have to be completely eradicated.
One of the biggest ecological impacts is the ability of cheatgrass to change fire frequencies.
“Big sagebrush subspecies don’t respond well to fire, as they don’t re-sprout and have to re-grow from seed,” says Mealor. “Some places in the Great Basin have changed from a historic fire frequency of 100 to 150 years between fires to burning every three to five years, and if you get a fire return that quick the odds of reestablishing sagebrush are very low.”
The buildup of litter from cheatgrass creates fine fuels even early in summer, and all it takes is one lightning strike to initiate a fire cycle.
“I don’t think we’ve reached that point in a lot of the state. We have a good perennial component, and a lot of shrubs, so that gives us the opportunity to go to some high-priority areas to prevent the cheatgrass wildfire cycle,” explains Mealor.
Control efforts aim to increase species diversity, improve the predictability and longevity of the forage base, protect the perennial plant community by reducing the probability of an altered fire regime and to reduce the susceptibility to secondary invaders.
Mealor says the herbicide Plateau is the most widely used for cheatgrass in rangeland.
“We’ve seen the best results with pre-emergent application in the fall. Plateau can maintain residual desirable plants, and there are no grazing restrictions. We can also reseed following applications, and I’ve heard some really good reports,” he states, adding that the chemical does need to reach the soil surface, and can be intercepted by litter, which causes less and unpredictable control. However, sagebrush is resistant at label rates.
Matrix is another chemical option that has a rangeland restoration label for fall application.
“I work with it as a pre-emergent, and my thought is that if we have soil residual and can get it on pre-emergent, our window of efficacy will be good,” says Mealor.
Matrix is applied at low rates – the label recommends two to three ounces per acre, though some reports show good control down to one ounce. Mealor says it is expensive, at $17 per ounce, because it was originally developed for crop markets and still carries that cost with it.
Regarding Roundup herbicide, Mealor says at low rates in early spring it can suppress cheatgrass populations.
“You want to apply it when the desirable vegetation is dormant, or not 100 percent actively growing, and it can be used in reseeding projects,” he notes. “Apply it at around 14 ounces per acre, and if you can wait for the population to be at half seed set you’ll catch the entire group. It’s a low-cost option for chemical control.”
Mealor says Journey is another low-cost option that can be applied both pre- and post-emergent, and that fall is a good time for application.
Following treatment, Mealor says reseeding may have to be an option in cases where productive rangeland has been dominated by cheatgrass, with no desirable species left.
“Herbicides are probably the most effective control tool we have, from a cost and efficacy standpoint,” says Mealor of the solution to encroaching cheatgrass.
Christy Martinez is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Deadwood, S.D. – “An asset is something that puts money in our pockets, and a liability is something that takes money out of our pockets,” stated the University of Wyoming Extension Educator Dallas Mount.

He noted that using this definition, from Robert Kiyosaki, producers might not always know what their assets and liabilities are.

During the Joint Wyoming-South Dakota Farm Bureau Young Farmers and Ranchers Conference in Deadwood, S.D. on Jan. 17, Mount looked at improving grazing.

Mount continued, asking, “What business is the ranch involved in? What are its enterprises?”

Operation enterprises

An example ranch may have a hay business, a cow/calf herd and a land business. Each of these sectors generates different levels of income for the operation.

On the example ranch, Mount explained, “They are buying and developing heifers and turning around and selling them. They are profitable and therefore an asset.”

He outlined the various enterprises of the sample ranch, noting that not all of them make for positive returns.

“We are looking at this from an ag value analysis,” he said.

Determining which areas of the operation are losing money will help determine steps for making a more lucrative business.

“The grass and the land business might be the biggest assets on the ranch,” he stated. “It might be the thing that is putting money in our pockets.”

A look inside

Mount reviewed in-depth analyses of 20 to 30 ranches a year, looking at the various components of the business.

“For most of these ranchers, the land business is continually the greatest asset of those enterprises that they are going to need,” he explained.

That is why he believes it is very important to discuss grazing management. 

“The least management-intensive grazing program would be continuous grazing,” he said.

Various kinds of rotational grazing involve a bit more management, and management-intensive grazing (MIG) can involve moving cows every day.

“We can find something that meets a medium,” Mount said of management intensity.

Grazing impact

“Combining herds, for most people, is the greatest leverage they have to impact a grazing program, before they build one stinking piece of fence,” he added.

Although he recognized there are production implications to combining herds, he believes it can provide advantages to managing grass.

“Maybe some of our pastures would get more rest if we had one herd instead of two,” Mount suggested.  

Management choices

There are three things Mount proposed that can be managed in grazing – rest period, graze period and stock density.

“Rest period is how much rest we are giving the plants,” he said.

One advantage to including appropriate rest periods is the ability to affect species composition.

“If we don’t ever give those plants that we want a time to rest, they are going to disappear, and then we are going to have weeds,” he said.

Leaving a pasture empty in the wintertime does not count as a rest period.

“We really need to have growing season rest, and the best time of rest is that rapid growth period. There is a season on our ranch where most growth occurs,” he explained.

He noted that grazing during that high growth period has the most detrimental effect on grass production.


Graze period, he continues, is the amount of time that animals are in an area.

“We can overgraze a pasture even if it’s very lightly stocked,” he said.

For example, placing five horses in a section of pasture will lead to grazed patches.

“Those horses are going to overgraze it in spots and under-graze it in other spots,” he noted.

He then explained that there are two ways to overgraze. One is to stay too long, and the other is to return too soon.

“It really has to do with utilization,” he added.

Stock density is another tool to manage utilization. 

“Stock density is how many animals we have in a particular spot at this instant,” he stated.

For example, consider how a pasture is grazed in relation to the water tank. The grasses closest to the water, where the stock density is highest, will be heavily grazed, while the borders further from the tank will have very little grazing.

“If we are managing rest periods on the ranch, graze periods so cows aren’t staying too long, and if we can get our stock densities up, the ranch could increase carrying capacity and see improved range conditions at the same time,” Mount explained.


Mount also warned that producers should not be using tools from the 1900s. People tend to use systems that we they know and are comfortable with.

“Most people think four-wire or barbed-wire fence is necessary,” he noted, as an example.

Looking into quality electric fencing and pastures with temporary fencing that can be moved may provide better value. Mount suggested looking into systems with poly-wire that provide full access to water tanks.


“This year has provided an interesting opportunity, maybe, to reinvest some money into the operation,” he stated.

To take advantage of higher profits, it may be a good time to foot the up-front costs for systems and tools that will save money in the future, he said. It could also be an ideal time to evaluate which enterprises can be changed or modified within the operation.

“I think the world has changed in 2014, and we need to be aware of that in how we manage our business, in short-term and long-term strategic planning,” explained Mount.

Financial piece

He noted that it is important to look at the financials over the past number of years. One year of numbers will not represent how the operation runs as a whole.

“When the tax accountant walks in and says we’re going to have to pay a whole bunch of taxes and need to spend this money on the business so we don’t have to give the government a piece of it, what do we do with the money?” Mount asked.

He briefly posed the possibility of paying the taxes and putting the money into the bank as a rainy-day fund, adding it to a retirement fund or buying a new tractor.

“I think that if we change our focus to how we can make grazing, as an asset, even more efficient, that might be the greatest thing that we can do to increase the profitability of our ranch,” he said.

Natasha Wheeler is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

“Stocking rate is the most important management decision we can make,” remarks Hugh Aljoe of the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation.

“It’s a little bit complicated because stocking rate is something that we, as producers, tend to want to set and keep constant,” he adds.

Stocking rate, defined as the number of head in a given area, and carrying capacity, or the amount of forage produced in that area, can also confuse the matter.

“These terms are interchanged but have very different meanings,” he says.

Carrying capacity can vary quite a bit, primarily due to precipitation, including from one extreme to another between one year and the next.

Hay inventory

Aljoe comments, “The question we should be asking ourselves is, what is our stocking rate and what would be appropriate?”

To assess the question of appropriate stocking rates, he suggests evaluating the number of months that are planned for feeding hay versus the number of months when hay is actually fed.

“For every month we are feeding hay in addition to what we have planned, we can figure we are about 8.3 percent overstocked, at a minimum,” he says. “For example, if we are feeding two months of hay above what we originally planned, we’re probably 15 to 17 percent overstocked, based on no other information other than what we have used historically when feeding hay.”

One way to manage for years with low precipitation is to use a conservative stocking rate. This provides extra forage in dry years as well as opportunities for pasture recovery in an active growing season.

“That’s important when it comes to a bit of a dry spell because we know some of our pastures may get more use than we had originally intended,” he notes.

Another advantage to conservative stocking rates is the ability to retain a calf crop after weaning when markets dictate better values.

Extreme forage surplus can also be used as a strategic enterprise, such as hay that can be sold or stored for dry years.

Forage production

Next, Aljoe asks, “How do we go about determining stocking rate and what the current carrying capacity of our ranch is at any given time?”

He suggests creating an annual forage assessment, or a spreadsheet that outlines total forage production and graze-able acres on the ranch, as well as forage types on the ranch and in the surrounding area.

“We can go to the USDA web soil survey and at least make some projections on what the forage productive capabilities might be relative to our region and our area,” he comments.

At that point, producers can determine how conservative they want their stocking rate to be considering how precipitation fluctuates in the area and by asking themselves a series of questions.

“How many cows do I have now? How many cows have I had historically?” Aljoe asks. “How much hay do I feed annually? And has my pasture management changed in recent years?”

Stocking decisions

In summary, Aljoe reiterates that stocking rates are very important to pasture management decisions and that carrying capacity often fluctuates dramatically.

“Climate extremes are normal. Average is not normal. We need to ask how we want to manage for these climate extremes,” he states.

Keeping track of forage production throughout the year is also helpful, as it allows producers to identify upcoming challenges and opportunities.

“If we stock conservatively, it provides us the opportunity to have greater flexibility and provide opportunities within the operation to provide better land stewardship and take advantage of marketing opportunities,” he says.

Natasha Wheeler is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Worland – Barton Stam encouraged producers to consider frequency, intensity and timing of their grazing practices to manage small acreages, during WESTI Ag Days on Feb. 20 in Worland.

Stam, a University of Wyoming Extension educator, explained that shifting the impact livestock have on grasses can improve the competitive advantages of desirable species.

“As I go around and look at different people’s small acreages, the number one thing I see that’s probably a mistake is season-long grazing where the plants have absolutely no opportunity to rest from grazing,” he noted.

Best practices

One suggestion for maintaining healthy pastures is the take half, leave half rule, which guides the amount of biomass that should be left in the field after grazing.

“It’s a utilization range,” Stam said. “What I want us to keep in mind is having a desired utilization rate and figuring out what that is in our grazing plan.”

Stam also encouraged producers to include rest periods in their grazing plans, allowing the grasses to reproduce, set seed and put out more biomass.

“We should look at not coming back into a pasture that we’ve grazed and rested until we get back to an appropriate stubble height,” he added.

Irrigating when animals are not in the pasture can also improve pasture health, as it helps to avoid soil compaction.

“When we get heavy soil compaction, we lose all of the spaces in our soil where air and moisture need to be,” he described.

Next, Stam suggested taking a good look at what species are in the pasture to help determine the best times to start and stop grazing, explaining that a plant like orchard grass will suffer more damage than a plant like crested wheat grass if it is grazed to a very short stubble height.

“If we don’t know what our species are, we can talk to our Extension agents or look them up. Then, we can talk about their different characteristics,” he recommended.

Heat and moisture

Stam also acknowledged that many producers probably gain some understanding of how their grass species grow based on seasonal observations of their pastures.

Soil moisture and soil temperature, he continued, are two important factors that can affect how grasses grow and react to grazing throughout the season.

“It is possible to overgraze at any time of the year, but when we graze grasses, it can affect their opportunity for regrowth,” Stam explained.

Typically, in cool weather with adequate moisture, grasses have a better opportunity to regrow after they’ve been grazed, whereas they may not regrow as well in the hotter, drier months of the summer.

“The reason a plant moves out of a growth stage is because it senses when things are drying out and warming up. It needs to do the one thing all living entities want to do, and that is reproduce,” he said.

If grasses are impacted by grazing, mowing or fire right before they have produced viable seeds, the opportunity for regrowth within that season becomes very limited.

Seasonal growth

“Most of our grasses here in Wyoming are cool season grasses, so they want to grow in the cool spring. A lot of our grasses, even if we put a lot of water to them, aren’t going to grow as well as they did in the spring once it gets hot,” Stam remarked.

Smooth brome grass, for example, grows very well in the spring but doesn’t come back easily after it has been cut or eaten.

On the other hand, alfalfa and Garrison’s creeping foxtail are examples of forages that do have some regrowth after grazing, as long as they receive an adequate amount of water.

“Are we going to kill a grass if we graze it later in the year?” Stam asked. “Probably not, but if we come back to that same place at the same time every year, that might start to hurt those grasses.”

Grazing considerations may also change based on the seasonality of grazing, such as spring grazing versus grazing over the winter.

“When I think about grazing management in the spring, I’m thinking more about an individual plant’s health. When I go into the wintertime, I’m thinking about more of a landscape scale,” he said.

In the winter, preserving soil resources can be more of a challenge, and keeping  ground cover prevents some of that soil from blowing away in the wind or getting washed away in a storm.

Keeping ground cover

“If we have wildlife on our property and we want it to be there, stubble can be a resource for them, and on bigger properties, leaving stubble can provide a reserve if a drought comes in,” added Stam.

Leftover grass in the spring can also serve as an advantage because new grasses have a high water content, which makes it harder for livestock to get the required amounts of dry matter in their feed.

“A cow may need 25 pounds of dry matter per day. If that grass is 80 percent water, she would have to eat 300 pounds of wet matter to get 25 pounds of dry,” he stated to illustrate the point.

Overgrazing a pasture impacts the biomass belowground as well, and Stam reminded producers that roots are the perennial part of a plant, or the part that survives over multiple years.

“If we do too much grazing, not only do we eat all the aboveground biomass but we severely reduce the root biomass as well,” he commented.

Stam also suggested that producers choose forages suitable to their pasture habitats and production goals and continue to monitor species on their land.

“We should use our resources and plan our grazing strategies to keep the competitive advantage towards our good species,” he said.

Natasha Wheeler is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..