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Copyright 2010, Kathy Voth, Livestock for Landscapes, All rights reserved
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Cow Pointer

Educated Cows Eat Weeds!

Boulder County SARE Project - Managing Trained Cows for Vegetation Changes

This three year project is a demonstration of managing trained cattle to reduce weeds and improve ecosystem function. Our theory is that by using cattle trained to eat weeds and focusing them on weedy sites we can reduce weeds, improve soils, and increase the potential for native and grass species to return.

An important aspect of the project is to explore the use of "Mob Grazing" as a tool for improving ecosystem function and increasing forage production. In areas where this has been practiced, pastures are stocked at the equivalent of 1600 head per acre, and animals are moved when they have "eaten half and trampled half." The purpose of this level of impact is to increase soil organic matter and nutrient cycling and improve the water cycle by incorporating plant material into the soil surface and improving it with manure and urine.

What we hope to do with this project is find out what gains we might expect. We’re also looking at how we can translate the daily moves that most mob grazers do with their animals to a method that works well on the larger scale that most western ranchers operate. We might look at ways to combine herds on larger pastures to accomplish similar results so we can reduce labor. This project will provide firsthand examples of the kinds of stock densities that work best in more arid regions and how they affect forage and livestock productivity.

2010 Lessons Learned:

Trained Cattle Are A Useful Tool
As in 2009, we found our trainees adding many new weeds to their diets and untrained animals learned to do the same from the trainees.

More Animals Are Required to Accomplish Our Goals
Our test pastures demonstrated that 100 cow calf pairs plus bulls managed in small pastures require 2 acres per day, given the kind of vegetation we had in 2010. In our discussions with our partners we have arrived at a number of 200 - 300 for the next grazing season.

Mob Grazing Presents Significant Challenges Beyond Simply Managing the Animals.
When I discussed mob grazing with our partners, a variety of hurdles came up. Some were logistical, some were political, some were a result of how grazing has been managed in this area both historically, and since the City and County began acquiring open space, and most of them were a mix of all three. Those challenges include: Water, concerns from the public and from internal staff that cattle will be mismanaged and will over graze, and historic grazing management that is difficult to adjust to mob grazing requirements. This last hurdle means that, in essence, there may not be enough cattle in Boulder County to make mob grazing viable long-term. Therefore the next two years I will be focusing on helping ranchers and land managers consider solutions to address vegetation management goals in a targeted way.

Download the 2010 report here (1.3MB)

A three year project funded by Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education