Protection from Grazing


Overgrazing by livestock can do serious damage to wooded areas. Much of this damage is not immediately visible and shows up only as the following long-term effects.

Tree Decline

Tree seedlings and saplings are often the first to be eaten or destroyed. Livestock break saplings, strip them of bark, and trample them. Even large trees can suffer wounds from the rubbing and chipping of hooves at the base of the tree.

Tree Mortality

The appearance of a grazed wooded areas changes as trees are harvested or die of old age. There are no young trees to take their place due to the damage grazing caused on tree seedlings.

Loss Of Timber Value

Often, trees that are more resistant to grazing increase in number as the less resistant, but more valuable trees, are eradicated. Hickories, with their taproot, can tolerate more soil compaction than oaks and will increase in number. Honey locust seedlings are thorny and seldom eaten by livestock, so they thrive in grazed woods.

Furthermore, hardwood forests produce poor-quality forage for livestock. One acre of a managed pasture produces the grazing equivalent of 20–40 acres of woodland grazing. The best investment is to manage existing pastureland and allow the woodlands to grow trees and wildlife.


Wildlife Habitat Destruction

Because there is little else for cattle to eat in the woods, they eat plants from the ground up to as high as they can reach. This reduces the dense brush and low-growing plants that wildlife depend on for food and protective cover, making it difficult for wildlife to survive in grazed areas.

Grazed woodlands also are less vigorous. Trees in these areas produce fewer seeds, including acorns, which are a staple food for woodland wildlife. Cattle grazing in a woodland may eat the entire acorn crop, leaving nothing for wildlife.

To restore grazed woodland for better wildlife habitat, fence out your livestock. Financial assistance for fencing may be available through your county USDA service center.

Wooded area with healthy understory growth between trees
Ungrazed Woodlands: Limited grazing of forests leaves plenty of food and cover plants for wildlife.
MDC staff
Wooded area with no understory vegetation between trees
Grazed Woodlands: Heavy prolonged grazing of forests eliminates food and cover plants for wildlife.
MDC staff

Soil Erosion And Compaction

Ungrazed forestland provides excellent protection for the soil. In contrast, the soil erosion on grazed woodland can be as much as 110 times greater than on ungrazed woodland.

Influence of Grazing on Erosion Potential in Forest Land

Level of Grazing

Percent Ground Cover

Erosion Potential


95+ percent


Lightly grazed

85–95 percent

8 times

Moderately grazed

50–85 percent

30 times

Heavily grazed

0–50 percent

110 times


When Livestock Pack Down the Soil:

  • Livestock hooves mix the leaf litter into the soil, speeding decomposition, and exposing bare soil to erosion.
  • Pores in the soil that allow air and water transport to tree roots are sealed off, suffocating the roots below.
  • Rainwater that should infiltrate into the soil runs off the surface.
  • The fine, hair-like feeder roots located several inches under the ground are exposed and damaged.
  • Trees become weakened, and their growth rate slows. Damaged and exposed tree roots are excellent entry points for insect and disease pests.


Diagram comparing tree roots on grazed and ungrazed land