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GPS shows cattle grazing habits

While most people see cows when they look at a pasture, Iowa State University animal scientist Jim Russell sees the potential for improving cattle production, as well as a way to conserve soil and water.

For the past three years, Russell has studied cattle preferences as part of a repretty easy to see that size and shape of the pasture can greatly reduce risk of water contamination.”

Key Points

• GPS proves a useful tool to learn more about cattle grazing habits.

• Cattle are not spending as much time in or near water as was thought.

• Size and shape of pasture can greatly reduce the risk of water contamination.


The study called for recorded data on movements of two or three cows in eight different pastures on five cow-calf farms in the Rathbun Lake watershed area. Each cow wore a GPS collar for two weeks during spring, summer and fall of 2007, 2008 and 2009. Temperature and humidity also were recorded.

One major obstacle of this project was finding several willing farmers to cooperate. The amount of cattle handling was a turn-off for many producers. “They were a little hesitant because of the amount of handling required,” says Russell. “We were limited by the two-week battery life on the GPS receivers. Several farmers told us they would love to do it if we could put the collars on in May and take them off in September.”

Steps producers can take

Russell says cattle producers can take several steps right now. “Creating buffer strips between pastures, providing off-stream water sources or stable crossing points, or using rotational grazing are good places to start,” he says. “The size and shape of pastures does matter, and cattle don’t spend as much time in the water as we hypothesized, so other factors may be contributing to the water quality, such as wildlife or even septic tank leakage. Sediment in the water is caused more by the hydrology than by cattle kicking it around.”

Russell will collect data from cattle at the ISU farm near Rhodes in central Iowa during the current grazing season. With the research so far, Russell created a series of publications, titled “Guide to Managing Pasture Water.” View the publications at www.leopold.iastate.edu/research/eco_files/resources.html under “Animal management and forage.”

Source: ISU Extension

This article published in the August, 2010 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.