Getting a range cow to leave the comforts of a riparian area for the grassy mountainside has been a challenge for western cattle producers for decades. Steep terrain makes getting evenly distributed use throughout an area nearly impossible.
But the combination of increased public scrutiny and the effects of a lingering drought have made finding a tool to better manage the forage more important today than at nearly any other time.
Wayne Butts has the difficult task of balancing between recreational and livestock use in the Musselshell Ranger District in the Lewis & Clark National Forest in central Montana. A lot of the tension he sees exists because both livestock producers and recreationalists use the highly productive riparian areas heavily.
"Those bottom areas are used too hard," he says. "They're very productive. They're used by all the different forest users."
If cattle producers can find a way to lighten use in those heavily used areas, he believes recreationalists and environmentalists could co-exist more peaceably with livestock on the range.
In a recent series of trials conducted in central and western Montana, installation of CRYSTALYX® low-moisture block supplements attracted cattle to graze underutilized areas of public lands grazing allotments. The results exceed Agency expectations. Early indications are that CRYSTALYX® can be a very powerful tool to improve grazing management.
The following ten articles demonstrate how cattle producers, university researchers and U.S. Forest Service representatives cooperated together to better manage this valuable natural resource, and utilize it appropriately for the benefit of all stakeholders.
Wayne Butts of the U.S. Forest Service was receptive when cattleman David Voldseth and other permittees on the Comb Butte allotment approached him about using CRYSTALYX® low-moisture blocks during the 2002 season. Voldseth had used CRYSTALYX® blocks on his own ranch during a drought to hold cattle to graze an underutilized area. Voldseth runs about 400 cow-calf pairs from his 1,500-head herd on the Comb Butte Allotment. He found the barrels worked as well on the Forest Service allotment.
The ranchers placed the barrels based on their experiences and in locations where they wanted to attract cattle. In some locations, single barrels wereplaced, in others multiple barrels were placed in a string. Voldseth spent a lot of time in and around the allotment and saw the positive results by the placement of multiple barrels in an underutilized area.
"It did what we wanted it to do in that it was able to keep cattle in areas that were previously mostly unused and keep them there long enough that a good share of the forage was utilized," he said.
Dennis Froeming, a range consultant, did an initial assessment of the allotment when cattle were turned out in early July. He followed that assessment with mid-season and postgrazing evaluations. At each location Froeming started walking in a direction, stopping at every step to identify the grass plant, record the height of the plant and whether it was grazed or not. He did four of the 15-plant transects at each location. Froeming also used the USFS standard of counting the number of grazed plants out of 50 and then converting that to a percentage of utilization to look at overall use.
He found that the permittees were able to stay in a pasture called Indian Creek for two weeks longer than the typical four weeks that they had in the past. “Much of the area was still fairly equally utilized with use levels at 25- to 30-percent,” Froeming said.
Using a combination of low-moisture blocks and herding worked well. At one location, the combination yielded a utilization rate of 25-percent around the site and 21-percent, one-third to one-half mile from the site.
In another area, the low-moisture blocks were put out after the cattle had been in the pasture for two weeks. Some barrels were placed on a ridge with a 35- to 40-percent slope. Froeming was amazed at how well the barrels drew cattle to the ridge. Utilization was between 40-and 45-percent on the lower slopes and 25- to 30-percent on the high knob.
Trials on U.S. Forest Service allotments in Montana during 2002 show that using CRYSTALYX® low-moisture blocks in conjunction with a rider is extremely effective in keeping cattle out of riparian areas.
Jim Kusek was hired as a herder on the Moss Agate Allotment in central Montana. He used the low-moisture blocks to keep cattle out of an area that had been burned to improve wildlife habitat in September of 2000. In 2001, the ranchers put in water improvements to help keep the cattle out of the burned area, but Kusek said the barrels in 2002 were even more effective.
"This year we put the barrels out and then we pushed the cattle on them and they pretty much stayed there for a week or ten days" Kusek said, "and then we had to put them back. All I can say about it is that it doesn't replace a rider but it sure helped a lot."
That was also the observation of Dennis Froeming, a range consultant who collected utilization data on the Comb Butte allotment. "I don't think you can separate riding from the use of the product," he said.
Froeming was a conservationist with the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service before he retired and became a range consultant. He's seen a lot of gimmicks in his career. He admits that at the beginning of the season he was skeptical about how well the low-moisture blocks would work.
"I've got to admit I was pleasantly surprised with the effectiveness of the product and how it worked," Froeming said. He cautions that riders are a key component to the success.
"It (CRYSTALYX®) gave an incentive to stay out and away from the key area, away from the water," he said,"and they would stay there for a day or two and then they would go back to water. And then the rider went in two or three days later and pushed them back out there and they would stay there."
Wayne Butts, with the USFS, also believes that CRYSTALYX® can be an effective tool for distributing cattle in an overall management plan. But, it's just a tool he says, not a silver bullet. "With the use of this supplement, the permittees bought themselves 10 to 20 days extra grazing on the permit by the use of the barrels, when used in conjuction with riding," Butts said.
David Maichel learned that the placement of the product is also critical. He and four other ranchers used CRYSTALYX® low-moisture blocks to distribute 650 cow-calf pairs on the approximately 100,000 acre Willow Creek allotment. The ranchers are being pressured to reduce cattle numbers by 28 percent or grazing days by the same amount.
"We've learned that if you take them late in the afternoon, towards early evening, they will stay and still be there the next morning," Maichel said. He's found that cattle can be trained to the barrel. "Once they see you put it out, they'll be interested in it and come up to it."
Marianne Klein, the U.S. Forest Service range conservationist for the allotment, said coordination is key if the person placing the barrels is not the same person herding the cattle.
"They have to be working with the folks that are putting the sites out," Klein said. "They need to be able to take the cows to those sites so that they are familiar with them and know where they are. Otherwise you are going to lose a lot of benefit."
She says using CRYSTALYX® isn't a replacement for good grazing management. "It's not a cure-all, but I can certainly see the potential."
Montana State University is conducting a three-year study at Bair Ranch to evaluate the effectiveness of herding in combination with strategic supplementation to protect riparian areas.
The study is being done on a 4,000-acre pasture that is divided into three different paddocks with three different treatments:
- Late-day herding alone
- Strategic supplementation - supplement placements about a mile away from the stream. Then late-day herding the animals away from the stream to the supplement placement as a reward for the travel away from the stream.
- Free range with no special management.
Although 2002 was the first year of a three year study, MSU professor Derek Bailey says the results are encouraging. The stubble height of the forage next to the stream and in the riparian areas of the pasture was generally two times higher in the two managed paddocks than the control group. Stubble heights in the control paddocks averaged 5-inches compared to 9-inches in the late-day herding-alone paddock and 12-inches in the late-day herding with supplementation paddock.
In several previous studies, Montana State University researcher Derek Bailey has found that cattle like the low-moisture block and will travel up high slopes to reach it. Once there, they stay and graze in the area around the block. With this study Bailey is testing the idea that once cattle are late-day herded to an area where there is something to hold them (the low moisture blocks), the cattle will stay there. That may reduce some of the problems and labor requirements associated with herding.
Bailey hopes the study will offer insights for ranchers looking for ways to change cattle behavior and grazing distribution patterns. He likens it to driving into town for dinner.
"You may not drive to a city from a ranch just to eat in town," Bailey said. "But once you are there, the restaurants look really good because you are there already. So that's the whole idea, to get them to the spot. Once they are there, the surrounding vegetation doesn't seem so bad. They have already put in the effort to travel there."
By the end of the three year study each paddock will have had one year's grazing under each of the three management strategies.
Bailey sees potential benefit for cattle producers who run cattle on private as well as public land. Distribution is a problem on any rangeland. Ranchers who use strategic supplementation are able to lure cattle to graze areas that they normally won't. Bailey believes that has two benefits.
One is that by getting cattle to graze more uniformly, a rancher improves the forage base and the ultimate sustainability of the resource. "You improve the vigor of the grass that is typically grazed heavily," he said.
Second, a rancher may be able to increase stocking rate or increase the length of the grazing period because with the low-moisture blocks, cattle now graze forage in underutilized areas that previously were mostly ungrazed.
The Voldseth family has been raising cattle in southwestern Montana for 125 years. Their largest neighbor — boundary wise — is the U.S. National Forest and the family runs about 400 of the 1,500 cow-calf herd on Comb Butte allotments each year.
David Voldseth has been using CRYSTALYX® as a fall and winter supplement for about 15 years. During a drought, he experimented with using CRYSTALYX® on his private land to hold cattle in an underutilized area that they normally graze lightly in the fall, but where the cattle didn’t want to stay because of the drought. He found putting the low moisture blocks out was enough to keep the cattle in that area.
That experiment prompted him to approach the USFS about using CRYSTALYX® on the public allotments in 2002. As drought in Montana entered its seventh year, Voldseth had been forced to reduce his herd to 1,200 pairs and the USFS planned to reduce his grazing season.
The allotment is fairly well watered, with water developments about every half mile. But in that half mile, there can be a lot of variation in how the forage is utilized.
Barrels were placed in an area distant from water where salt had historically been placed. Voldseth says both livestock and wildlife have underused the area. By placing low-moisture blocks in the area, and then hiring a rider to trail cattle to the barrel, the cattle stayed in the area and used more of the forage.
“And I think we’ll find in time that the elk in particular will use those areas more as well because a lot of that coarse rough fescue has been grazed down,” Voldseth says, “and what’s left will be considerably more palatable to the wildlife population.”
Forage isn’t something that can be stored, Voldseth points out. Elk and deer don’t winter in the high ground where the excess forage is left standing. “If your cattle don’t graze it, it gets snowed down. The elk don’t get it. The deer don’t get it. It just goes to waste.”
Voldseth also placed blocks at the head of Deer Creek, a particularly steep part of the allotment that has also been underutilized in the past. He placed two barrels on the west side and two on the east side. “I fully expected them to be full when I went back and they were all empty, which was really surprising to me,” he says.
While he feeds CRYSTALYX® for the additional protein and energy it provides during the winter, Voldseth sees increased forage utilization as the key benefit to putting the barrels out on the public lands allotment. He hopes the USFS will agree that the blocks help keep cattle out of the riparian areas and will allow him to run the number of cattle permitted for the entire grazing season.
He’s not sure what the bottom line cost of the experiment on public land will be, but from the standpoint of better forage utilization and improved wildlife habitat, the experiment was worthwhile.
“The object is to use grass that isn’t going to be used otherwise,” Voldseth says.
Using the CRYSTALYX® low-moisture block was nearly as effective for distributing cattle as installing another fence and pipeline.
John Sampsell has used CRYSTALYX® on his home ranch south of Stanford, MT, to supplement cows after calving in the spring and in the late fall and winter to utilize areas that haven’t been grazed. But 2002 was the first year he tried to use the low-moisture blocks on his public lands allotment to improve utilization. In his opinion, it worked just as well.
Blocks were placed in one pasture where one source of water is easy to get to and the other is hard. In the past, the cattle have congregated in a 50-acre meadow around the easy source of water. Riders would try to push the cattle out of the area, but the cattle always came back. “It was getting hit pretty hard,” he admits.
Putting CRYSTALYX® blocks out kept the cattle in the areas they’d never utilized before. Sampsell says they hardly touched the areas that are usually grazed hard. “It made the cows utilize the end of the pasture that we could never get utilized very well before,” he adds.
In fact, U.S. Forest Service personnel said utilization in the hard hit area was in line with what the allotment’s grazing plan calls for.
Sampsell has run cattle on the Burnt Ridge allotment with his cousins since 1977. He usually runs about 100 cow-calf pairs on the 9,400-acre allotment in central Montana. One pasture has plenty of water with meadows, willows and willow bottoms; the other pasture is steep with only two sources of water. The second pasture has an elevation of about 8,000 feet at the highest point.
Not only did the CRYSTALYX® improve utilization on the allotment, it made gathering cattle in the fall easier. Most years, it takes them two or three days to gather all the cattle out of the pasture, and in 2002 they gathered all but a half dozen pairs in the first pass through the pasture. And when they made the second pass, Sampsell said the cows and calves were right by the blocks. “They knew that’s where they had to go and that’s where we found them.” Given the success of the 2002 grazing season, Sampsell is more than willing to put CRYSTALYX® low-moisture blocks out again on his allotment but he’ll probably make some adjustments. He’d use more low-moisture blocks and late-day trail the cattle to the barrels so grazing pressure is focused away from the riparian areas, from day one in the new pasture.
David Maichel’s family has been ranching in Madison County, Montana, since 1898. As the public has discovered the beauty of the headwaters of the Missouri River, the pressure to change grazing management on the public lands has increased.
“I’m the fifth generation on my place. And it’s getting tougher and tougher to keep it going.” Maichel has about 500 cow-calf pairs on his ranch. He used CRYSTALYX® on his ranch during calving a year ago and was impressed with the low-moisture block’s performance. That led him to study how CRYSTALYX® had been used to draw and hold cattle in certain areas. This encouraged him to try an experiment on his allotment.
The idea, Maichel says, was to put the CRYSTALYX® “where we’ve got the feed but not necessarily the cows.”
About 35 years ago, the 100,000-acre allotment was fenced into four pastures for rest-rotation management. Three pastures are utilized each year while the fourth is rested. When the forage was about fifty percent utilized in the critical areas, the cattle are moved into the next pasture, typically onto more mature forage that was late growing-season rested the year before. “If we run out of pastured, the cattle come home from the permit early,” Maichel’s said.
The allotment is a prime example of the contentions that can arise from public land use. The U.S. Forest Service has told the permittees that they want cattle on the allotment for both fire and weed control, but the public has requested less use within the riparian areas. “If we overuse the resource, then we will be out of business.”
“We’re getting pressure right now from the Forest Service to either reduce our numbers by twenty-eight percent or our grazing days by that same number and that’s why we’re looking for answers to counteract that,” he says. He believes CRYSTALYX® offers a way to show the public that ranchers are making a whole-hearted effort to manage the resource correctly.
Ranchers with grazing allotments on steep terrain should give CRYSTALYX® a try. “You can always just try it around your own place to start with and in certain areas where you have trouble getting cows to,” Maichel says. “And you can train the cows to the product and once they see you put it out, they’ll be interested in it and come up to it.”
WILLOW CREEK ALLOTMEN