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Animal Health Notebook

Water for mob grazing

bgsmith/ThinkstockPhotos Cows in water
Here are some thoughts on using existing water sources for high-density grazing.

Back in September 2016 at our grazing conference we demonstrated a practice grazing and land management that has been practiced by Montana’s Ray Bannister for better than 30 years.

Using that, he has taken drought and flooding out of his operation’s forecast. High-density grazing in his "boom and bust" model is totally natural and works every time. The number one and two keys are complete plant recovery followed by fast, severe grazing.

Two of the obstacles to grazing management are water and distance from water. Another obstacle is lack of shade. Another obstacle is fence. The most important might be animal health. The amount of time cattle are on-site is one of the keys for us to burn into our minds. Remember and think big numbers for short periods. The wetter the environment the shorter the stay needs to be.

Large herds of ruminants like cattle in the wild were forced to move into water sources quickly and then leave and return in big numbers and densities to the safety of the prairie or savannah. The presence of wolves was the major governing factor in North America.

Many water sources for cattle in our country are or quickly become mud-holes due to the constant presence and use by cattle for a large part of everyday. This is not natural or normal. Cattle were designed by the creator to water when the herd said it was time to drink. There is power and safety in numbers.

Cattle move to water as a herd if the water is farther than 1,000 feet from their grazing activity. When forage has been limited before watering they tend to drink and "water up" fast and return to fresh grass in a larger group. Remember that cattle can consume water in large amounts, based on its cleanliness and temperature. The closer the water is to 100 degrees, the faster the cattle can drink.

At our place during the majority of the year, cattle are ready to go to water between noon and 2 p.m. We plan to be there and if there is a water site where everybody can drink at once, we turn them to water. The pond might be a mile away but they will be there shortly. They know fresh grass is back in the pasture and usually all are back to the new cut in less than 45 minutes. The pond, tank, pool or creek has 23 hours to recover and clear. All the banks are trampled and tamped. Several days of such treatment annually and the water resource improves. Life expectancy of ponds triples.

Key points I need to make are:

  • Distance to water alters behavior
  • Timing on your place will vary
  • Water temperature – it takes a lot longer to drink cold water
  • Spacing – cattle need two feet per head minimum

We may need to slightly redirect the herd to and from the water every few days to reduce trailing. This is generally quite easy on fouled pasture ground and timber and does not require many posts, good wire, or electricity.

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