Watch Those Hooves
Keeping cattle from woodlands and streams can benefit wildlife, landowners and livestock.
In southern Missouri, many cattle producers give their animals free run of their land. This approach to grazing cattle is less a strategy than a way of life. Because they've been producing livestock this way for so long, some landowners balk at the very idea of excluding cattle from woodlands, streams and other sensitive areas.
This is unfortunate because many areas that have been left to cattle could well be valuable to landowners for reasons other than livestock production. Managing them for other uses can pay big benefits for landowners, as well as for livestock and the land itself.
Landowners often say that cattle need forested areas for shade in the summer and for protection from winter winds. Wooded cover does serve these purposes, but wooded areas are also important for wildlife and timber production, and aesthetic values.
As management intensive grazing gains popularity in Missouri, many livestock producers are fencing cattle out of the timbered portions of their property. However, they don't necessarily exclude cattle from all forests. With careful planning, they incorporate wooded areas into their grazing strategies by identifying which areas are best for producing forage crops and which are better for timber or wildlife. Small wooded areas, for example, might provide shade and shelter for livestock, while the remaining forest land is managed for high-quality timber production or wildlife habitat that provides hunting opportunities.
Excluding livestock from forest land helps preserve the integrity of the land. It's no secret that livestock can damage delicate forest soils. Cattle hooves crush, chop and destroy the duff layer and leaf litter on the forest floor, increasing the likliehood of it washing away in heavy rain. Without these layers of organic matter, thin Ozark soils are highly vulnerable to erosion. The reduction of soil exposes tree roots, allowing hooves to damage root surfaces. These "open wounds" invite invasions of fungi, insects and bacteria that can damage tree health and greatly reduce the market value of the timber.
Unlike deer, which are browsers, cattle are grazers, but in a forest they will eat whatever they can reach. This not only reduces the amount of wildlife the land can support (carrying capacity), but woodland forage can also be harmful to cattle. The leaves and acorns of oaks, for example, contain tannic acid, which reduces milk production in cattle. Milk is not a primary product of beef cattle, but reduced milk production will result in lower-weight calves at market time, and a lighter wallet for a cattle grower at the sale barn.
Black cherry also can cause production losses. The wilted leaves of black cherry trees can contain prussic acid, which is deadly to cattle. Several other forest plants can cause financial losses for livestock producers.
One of the more persuasive arguments for managed intensive grazing is that feeding livestock in improved pasture is about 40 times more efficient than feeding them on forest land. In other words, grazing cattle in woodlands takes about 40 times as much land to provide the same nutrition as improved pasture. That's simply not cost effective for most landowners.
Many landowners rely on streams to water their livestock and keep them cool in the summer. However, the issues regarding streams and bottomland are the same as they are for woodlands. Cattle eat and trample streamside vegetation, exposing the soil to erosive forces and damaging the roots of trees, shrubs and other valuable natural resources.
There's also a water quality issue when it comes to livestock in streams. Municipal wastewater and discharge from swine and poultry processing plants have much greater affect on our water quality than livestock, but when livestock crowd into a stream to escape the summer heat, it doesn't take much imagination to figure out what they do while they're standing around.
When I was growing up in southwest Missouri, there was a stream that ran through our home place. In a dry summer, the stream would shrink to a few deep holes. The cattle would wade into these holes and stand in the water under the shade of the surrounding trees. A well in the valley supplied our home with water.
One summer, the flavor of our water changed. It gradually went from sweet to, well, not so sweet. We had the water tested, and the bacteria count was off the chart. We were forced to find another source of domestic water. Only after we removed the cattle from the stream and flushed the system did our water quality improve.
A few simple steps can reduce such problems. For starters, remove livestock from streams by providing alternative water sources such as building an upland pond or drilling a well to provide water for livestock away from a stream. Another method is to restrict access to streams by forcing livestock to use one or two access points for drinking water rather than giving them free reign over the entire waterway.
Landowners can often incorporate such practices into an overall management plan that can help them become more efficient producers while they improve the quality and value of their land.