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Grazing Behavior
By Heather Smith Thomas
Cattle are grazers and browsers, eating a wide variety of grasses, forbs and leaves/bark (from shrubs and trees). Not having upper front teeth, cattle do not nip off plants as a horse does but use their flexible tongue to wrap around a “bite” and break it off with a movement of the head. They bite short grass with the lower teeth and hard upper palate, but cannot graze as closely as a horse or a sheep.

Domestic cattle are more versatile in diet than wild animals, partly because man has provided a variety of feeds and developed types of cattle that thrive in a variety of environmental conditions. A cow’s selection of plants she chooses to eat is partly instinctive and partly learned--from experience with various feeds, according to Dr. Clive Phillips (University of Queensland, Australia) who has studied cattle behavior for more than 25 years.
For instance, a mature cow that’s never been fed grain may refuse to eat it. But a cow that grew up eating grain will readily eat it, even many years later. Young stock learn much of their feed preferences by mimicking other members of the herd, especially their mothers.

Calves sample their mothers’ hay when only a few days old and stick their noses in water when mama drinks, following her example. By contrast, a hand-reared calf may not try hay or grain (or water) until several weeks old or older, not having a role model to copy, unless you stick the feed in its mouth a few times. Orphan calves often do better if they can live with an older animal to teach them the facts of life about eating.

Dr. Phillips says the grazing process is definitely a learned (rather than instinctive) behavior and cites the fact that at 8 weeks of age calves graze about 14 bites per minute whereas by 18 weeks of age they’ve mastered the technique and can graze at 50 bites per minute, a rate similar to that seen in adult cows.

Cattle are herd animals and tend to graze together in groups. If a cow or yearling is off by itself, it may be sick or lame (hindering its ability to stay with the group). On range or large pasture, cattle often form bonds with other members of the herd and tend to graze with a buddy or family group. It’s common to see small family groups ranging together, such as an older cow (with present calf at side) and her yearling daughter, or another daughter and her calf.

Preference for Certain Plants
Cattle have definite preferences when grazing. They prefer new tender regrowth and avoid older, mature plants. As pointed out by Thomas E. Bedell, Extension Rangeland Resources Specialist at Oregon State University (now retired), the levels of most nutritive components of a plant decline as it matures, especially protein levels. “Cattle tend to select diets that are higher in protein and lower in fiber”, he says, so they prefer young, tender plants. A pasture can be most efficiently utilized if stocking rate is such that cattle can trim it evenly and then be moved to new pasture. Rotational grazing works better for many pastures (allowing more cattle per acre and a healthier situation for the plants) than season-long grazing. A pasture can be more fully utilized (and cattle moved to new pasture) then allowed to regrow.

With season-long grazing, the preferred plants are over used. Cattle graze them again and again, because the regrowth is more tender than old mature plants that become coarse and dry. Some of the heavily grazed plants may be weakened or killed if this happens year after year. Once a plant becomes coarse and mature, the cow won’t eat it unless there isn’t much else left to eat in that pasture. Old, rank “wolf plants” are rarely grazed; the plants become choked with old dead leaves and stems, not as productive and healthy as a normal plant. For best plant health, grass needs to be grazed at some point in its growing season. Grazing stimulates new growth. A plant that’s periodically grazed is more vigorous and productive than a plant that’s never grazed. For best pasture health, grasses should be grazed with an adequate number of cattle to trim most of the plants a little, including the less palatable ones, and then the herd moved so plants can regrow. The same principles for growing a healthy lawn apply to pasture, but the periodic mowing is done by cattle.

This type of rotational grazing greatly minimizes the adverse effects of selective grazing by forcing more uniform use of a pasture at a particular season. Bedell says the animals may not perform quite as well when use is forced but performance “can be better than expected if you can get them to graze the plants available. Unpalatable plants do not necessarily have poor nutritive value; rumen bacteria responsible for a cow’s digestion may not be as fussy as the animal’s taste buds” and can convert the plant materials into usable nutrients.
He points out that ruminants can thrive on forage alone because of rumen bacteria that use the chemicals in forage for their own growth and reproduction as they digest the feed and synthesize other necessary nutrients. They make a complete diet out of what would otherwise appear to be only a partial diet.

Social Factors
Cattle are group grazers, staying together while feeding. They evolved as herd animals for protection against predators, staying together while grazing, eating plants that can be consumed quickly minimizing time spent out in the open) then rechewing food later at their leisure in a safe place. They all graze together at certain times of day, moving as a herd over the pasture in a common direction and with a specific inter-animal distance between herd members, and often with preferred grazing partners (certain animals in the herd often grazing together).

Phillips said this social aspect of grazing and cattle influence on one another can be demonstrated when cattle are given supplementary feed that reduces their need for grazing time. When supplemented cattle are grazed with unsupplemented cattle, grazing time of the latter is reduced as well--they don’t want to graze when their buddies won’t go with them.

Cattle are very gregarious, uneasy and restless if separated from the main herd. Yet they also need their individual space. If you put too many cattle in a small area, they become restless and do more walking and trampling of the grass. They do best in relatively small groups rather than concentrated in small pastures in large groups. For ideal pasture rotation, you need to discover (usually by trial and error experience) what makes the most ideal stocking rate for each pasture (and for how long a period), depending on the type of grass, climate and terrain, and type of cattle. Some breeds and types are more restless than others when confined in large groups in small areas.

Grass Waste by Fecal Deposits
On rangeland, where cattle have a lot of room, fecal material is dispersed over a wide area and has little effect on grazing patterns. In smaller pastures (especially irrigated or tame pastures) fecal deposits may hinder use of some of the grass. Cattle don’t like to graze plants near their manure. As Dr. Phillips states, rejection of grasses around each fecal deposit will be greater in undergrazed pastures “because cattle have the choice of other, cleaner areas to graze.” They reject the grass next to the manure at first because they can smell the feces, and then later because it has grown tall and too mature.

This rejection of forage next to manure may be nature’s way of limiting parasite infestation; larva that hatch from worm eggs in manure crawl onto adjacent plants, ready to be eaten, to reinfest the grazing animal. Cattle will eat grass around the manure of other species such as horses or sheep, whose parasites cannot complete their life cycle in cattle. Cattle and sheep can be grazed together to advantage, since they complement one another in plant selection (eating a wider variety of total plants) and few plants will grow too mature and rank--and they also graze next to each other’s droppings.

Grazing Time
Cattle need adequate grazing time to eat enough forage to meet their needs. If feed is good, they get full quickly and spend more time resting. If feed is scarce, they spend more time grazing. Because of their need to spend part of each day (and most of the night) chewing the cud, they may not be able to spend enough time grazing to meet their nutritional requirements if feed is sparse. If cattle are spending part of their normal “resting time” eating, this is a clue that they don’t have enough feed.

They may also shortchange themselves on grazing time (and lose weight) if conditions are adverse for grazing--such as very hot or very cold weather. In extreme heat, cattle spend more time in the shade than grazing, and do some grazing at night when it’s cooler. In winter, when cattle are cold and days are short, they may stand around waiting for sunshine instead of grazing. Temperature must generally be higher than 20 degrees F before cattle get going in the mornings to graze. A little hay or supplement on cold mornings can encourage cattle to start eating sooner.

Dr. Phillips said the high heat of digestion of fiber (in roughages eaten by cattle) enables them to survive very low temperatures without loss of production, provided they have a functional rumen to create that heat of digestion. “Pre-ruminant (young) or sick cattle or those that are inadequately fed, have reduced tolerance of cold stress. Feeding time for all cattle increases at low temperatures, but healthy ruminant cattle can easily adjust to sub-zero temperatures. The major nutritional adjustment they make is to speed up the rate of reticular contractions (one of the four stomachs) increasing ruminating time and the heat increment of digestion,” according to Phillips.

Stormy weather can cut into grazing time, as will any other conditions that interfere with normal grazing habits and patterns. Heavy rain usually brings a halt to grazing; cattle move to sheltered or brushy areas to wait out the storm. But a light rain often encourages them to graze, especially on a hot summer day. Cattle that were lying around will often get up and graze if the temperature drops a bit due to light rain. Cattle on lush green pasture often stop grazing (or eat less) when grass is wet from rain. But cattle on drier grasses (such as range bunch grass) generally increase their feed intake when grass is dampened or “softened up” by rain or snow. If there’s frost on the grass, however, they are reluctant to graze, perhaps because grasping the frosted grass chills the tongue.

Cattle use climatic effects to best advantage while grazing, says Phillips. When it’s cold they position themselves broadside to the sunshine. In cold wind and rain they stand with hindquarters to the wind to shield their more sensitive faces. They seek shelter if wind, rain or snow are severe, but in most instances will continue to graze, going with the wind direction, traveling faster and grazing less intensively.

A knowledge of cattle grazing behavior and habits can be used to advantage when managing cattle and grass, and utilizing various pastures. Knowing which conditions encourage good feed consumption and which may hinder it can help stockmen make wise decisions about pasture rotation, supplementation, stocking rates or movement of cattle. There’s no substitute for a good working knowledge of your cattle and how they behave under various conditions for grazing.

All together now: Booooooooo! Pfffffft!
That’s what the cattle industry rightfully says to radical animal rights groups like PETA and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).

There’s PETA with its naked celebrities shedding their furs, the inflammatory PR campaigns aimed at everything from the exploitation of tadpoles, to animals used for recreation and entertainment, to mainstream livestock production and on and on.

There’s Ingrid Newkirk, PETA president and co-founder, saying on a CNN newscast, as Great Britain was being rocked by Foot and Mouth Disease in 2001, “I openly hope that it comes here. It will bring economic harm only for those who profit from giving people heart attacks and giving animals a concentration camp-like existence. It would be good for animals, good for human health and good for the environment.”

Then there’s the more refined Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) with its undercover videos, massive budget and political savvy, petitioning producers into corners, while parading itself as a true animal welfare organization.

According to a profile from the Center for Consumer Freedom, “The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is a humane society in name only, since it doesn’t operate a single pet shelter or pet adoption facility anywhere in the United States. During 2007, HSUS contributed only 3.64 percent of its budget to organizations that operate hands-on dog and cat shelters. In reality, HSUS is a wealthy animal-rights lobbying organization (the largest and richest on earth) that agitates for the same goals as PETA and other radical groups.”
The unhidden agenda, of course, for organizations like these is to rid the world of meat consumption. So far, they’ve offered no alternative solutions to the protein void were they to be successful.

Enough of that. It’s too easy to get mad at such groups and overlook the mainstream debate they bastardize to fill their coffers from the unknowing.

Defend This
Never listen to Bernie Rollin unless you’re prepared to have you’re comfortable world of black and white smudged up a bit. He’s the world-renowned expert on veterinary medical ethics. He’s a professor of both philosophy and animal science at Colorado State University.

At December’s Beef Range Beef Cow Symposium, Rollin presented a paper entitled, Animal Rights as a Mainstream Phenomenon. In it he outlines the ethical revolutions in Western society for the past 50 years. Think here of everything from feminism and the Civil Rights Movement, to animal welfare.

For virtually all of human history, Rollin says animal agriculture was based on animal husbandry. That term still gets bandied about, but Rollin uses the term specifically.
“Husbandry, derived from the old Norse word “hus/band,” bonded to the household, meant taking great pains to put one’s animals into the best possible environment one could find to meet their physical and psychological natures…” Rollin explains. “In husbandry, a producer did well if and only if the animals did well, so productivity was tied to welfare. No social ethic was thus needed to ensure proper animal treatment; only the anti-cruelty (laws) designed to deal with sadists and psychopaths was needed to augment husbandry. Self-interest virtually assured good treatment.”

Yes, producers worth their salt still go above and beyond in caring for their livestock. Rollin recognizes that. But he also points out the basic relationship between livestock and their stewards changed in the wake of WW II. That’s when the U.S. government and its society wanted to ensure there would be plenty of affordable food. The Great Depression was still a close memory, after all.

Consequently, producers began utilizing new technology and management to produce more with fewer acres, fewer head of livestock for the same or less money. Looking over today’s shoulder, that wasn’t a conscious decision; instead it was the slow deliberate reaction of producers to evolving farm policy and the markets.

In doing so, Rollin says, “With technological sanders—hormones, vaccines, antibiotics, air-handling systems, mechanization—we could force square pegs into round holes, and place animals into environments where they suffered in ways irrelevant to productivity.”

Now, think back to the ethical revolutions Rollin mentioned. For more than 50 years he explains Western society has continued to extend its moral categories for humans to people previously morally ignored by society, such as women, ethnic minorities, the handicapped and so on.

“So a plausible and obvious move is for society to continue in its tendency and attempt to extend the moral machinery it has developed for dealing with people, appropriately modified, to animals. And this is precisely what has occurred. Society has taken elements of the moral categories it uses for assessing the treatment of people and is in
the process of modifying these concepts to make them appropriate for dealing with new issues in the treatment of animals, especially their use in science and confinement agriculture.”

It’s about ethics, not science
This has nothing to do with science. Rollin serves on the National Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (Pew Commission), which is a dirty word for many livestock producers.

A few years back, the Pew Commission was charged with studying intensive animal agriculture in the U.S. In the process, Rollin says in his paper that one livestock industry representative testifying before the Commission said it could allay the industry’s anxiety about the study if the industry knew the Commission’s conclusions and recommendations would be based on science.

Rollin explains, “Hoping to rectify the error in that comment, as well as educate the numerous industry representatives present, I responded to her as follows: ‘Madame, if we on the Commission were asking the question of how to raise swine in confinement, science could certainly answer that question for us. But that is not the question the Commission, or society, is asking. What we are asking is, ought we raise swine in confinement?’”

The Pew Commission report—Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production (IFAP) in America—has this to say about animal welfare: “IFAP methods for raising food animals have generated concern and debate over just what constitutes a reasonable life for animals and what kind of quality of life we owe the animals in our care. It is an ethical dilemma that transcends objective scientific measures, and incorporates value-based concerns. Physical health as measured by absence of some diseases or predation, for example, may be enhanced through confinement since the animals may not be exposed to certain infectious agents or sources of injury that would be encountered if the animals were raised outside of confinement. It is clear, however, that good animal welfare can no longer be assumed based only on the absence of disease or productivity outcomes. Intensive confinement (e.g. gestation crates for swine, battery cages for laying hens) often so severely restricts movement and natural behaviors, such as the ability to walk or lie on natural materials, having enough floor space to move with some freedom, and rooting for pigs, that it increases the likelihood that the animals suffer severe distress.”

Among the animal welfare recommendations made in the Pew Commission report: “Phase out the most intensive and inhumane production practices within a decade to reduce IFAP risks to public health and improve animal well being.” Of the seven practices cited, sow gestation crates, dairy cattle tail docking and poultry battery cages have become illegal in some states or are in the process of becoming so.

When considered through the lenses of science and production these recommendations can seem both ignorant and arrogant. But when you pose the same question—Ought we?—that Rollin did to the aforementioned industry representative worried about the science, it’s easier to understand the conclusions.

Last November, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) issued a point by point response to the Pew Commission IFAP report.

Broadly, in the executive summary of the response, AVMA says, “In our analysis of the Pew Commission’s report, we found several areas of concern, beginning with the technical assemblage of academics to research and review the report. The Pew Commission purports to have utilized a process that melds the thoughts of top academics and diverse stakeholders into its grandiose examination of food animal production. However, the Pew Commission’s process for gaining technical expertise in the technical reports was biased and did not incorporate the findings and suggestions of a significant number of participating academicians. We caution readers that we found disparities within the report, potentially due to the lack of incorporation of differing interpretations and conclusions offered by subject matter experts.”

In the area of IFAP animal welfare recommendations, the AVMA says in part, “While we believe there is value in some of the recommendations offered by the Pew Commission, we assert that many of the Commission’s sub-points have significant shortfalls and lack in comprehensive idea development or in how the Commission would execute a new plan or program…its recommendations inappropriately assume that intensive methods of farmed animal production are patently inhumane.” AVMA goes on to list several misconceptions, such as the assertion that increased living space for livestock results in improved welfare.

“A complete assessment of welfare requires consideration of animals’ physiological and psychological needs. In general, intensive animal production systems better satisfy the physiological and health needs of animals, whereas extensive animal production systems better satisfy the behavioral needs. Because the advantages and
disadvantages of farmed animal production systems for animal welfare are qualitatively different, there is no simple or objective way to rank systems for overall welfare,” explains the AVMA response. “Maintaining good welfare within production systems involves trade-offs. For example, production systems that allow animals to perform natural behaviors (e.g., providing substrates that permit swine to root) may present more challenges for disease and injury control. Conversely, using intensive confinement to improve disease and injury control often limits animals’ ability to engage in normal behaviors.”

In the case of the beef cattle, Rollin believes the practices the industry must get away from are hot iron branding, dehorning without anesthesia and castration without anesthesia.
All of this only skims the surface of Rollin’s insightful and eloquent case in logic, but it gets at what’s behind the mainstream animal welfare groups’ concerns. It explains why otherwise intelligent seeming folks can throw out notions that are anathema to efficient mainstream production.

Agree or disagree with Rollin’s points, but understand this is the psyche behind the mainstream animal welfare debate, not the lamebrain issues tossed around by the radial groups like PETA and HSUS in the name of fun-raising.

For Rollins paper, see (

For the Pew Commission report see

For the AVMA response, see

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