Managing Livestock for Healthy Wildlife Habitat
On many properties, wildlife management activities are most often impeded by livestock management practices. In most cases, livestock and the correct or incorrect use of domestic animals is the most important factor that effects wildlife populations. Fortunately wildlife and cattle management are compatible and easily integrated. In fact, cattle can be used in many cases to improve the habitat for many game and non-game wildlife species. Other domestic animals, such as goats, sheep and hogs are often not compatible with the management of native plant communities.
For this reason, the words “cattle” and “livestock” will be synonymous for the purpose of this article on wildlife management. Livestock should never be stocked above the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s (NRCS) recommended rates for a specific pasture/cover type. Property owners can also assess the proper stocking rate themselves or by contacting a grazing specialist through on-site vegetative sampling to develop a comprehensive grazing plan. As a general rule, moderate to light stocking rates are preferred for wildlife and habitat management.
Land owners interested in the enhancement or maintenance of habitat can contact the NRCS or the state wildlife agency to get some general guidelines on managing livestock stocking rates. These recommended stocking rates are general in nature and can vary depending on current range and soil conditions. Therefore, developing a grazing plan specific to the local range and soil conditions will greatly enhance livestock production and improve or maintain suitable wildlife habitat.
Rotational Grazing for Wildlife Management
The most common grazing system for managing native plant communities is rotational grazing of livestock. This involves rotating the herd through multiple pastures in order to allow each pasture a sufficient period of rest between grazing periods. Not only does this practice greatly improve pasture performance for livestock, but it will encourage the growth of important seed producing grasses and forbs for wildlife. Proper grassland management for wildlife through rotational grazing also maintains a certain amount grass and forb cover important to ground-nesting birds and whitetail fawns.
More pastures on a property means livestock will be moved more often, grazing each pasture for a shorter period of time. There are other variations of the standard one-herd grazing scheme, which includes the two pasture system and the three pasture system. The two pasture system allows the first pasture to be grazed for 3 months, then the second pasture for 6 months, then the first pasture for 6 months, then the second pasture for 3 months.
The three pasture one herd system involves rotating cattle every 3 months. This allows each pasture to receive 6 months of rest before being grazed again. Over a period of several years, pastures received rest during different seasons. This benefits native plants because it not only allows them to rest and regenerate their root reserves, but it allows them to grow as well as seed out, providing food for wildlife and the ability for new plants to grow.
Another good, but labor intensive spin on rotational grazing is the high intensity and low frequency (HILF) system. This is where a relatively high number of cattle (high intensity) are grazed through multiple pastures, and each pasture is allowed long periods of rest (low frequency). For example, a large property may have 8 or more pastures, but each is grazed only for a short time, maybe even just days, before livestock are moved to the next pasture. This an excellent practice for wildlife management because it promotes more even consumption of preferred and non-preferred forage by cattle and boost native forb production for birds and white-tailed deer.
Habitat Management for Wildlife or Livestock?
Regardless of the grazing system used, the objective is the same if the goal is better plant communities and better healthy populations. An effective grazing system will ensure that each pasture is rested for at least as long as it is grazed, or longer, and no pasture should be grazed during the same season in consecutive years. This will allow the pastures to gradually improve for cattle, deer, upland game birds, songbirds and other non-game species. However, know your goals and understand the objectives that must be accomplished to get there.
A grazing system will fail if the range/habitat is overstocked with livestock. Therefore, the landowner must development of a comprehensive grazing plan that matches grazing intensity with available forage. White-tailed deer do not consume much grass (<10% of diet), but they and and even stocked, exotic ungulate species must also be considered in the grazing rate as well if habitat enhancement is desired.
Protecting certain plant communities is paramount if habitat is to be maintained or improved. Excluding cattle from wooded areas is always a good idea when the primary interest is wildlife management. Broadleaf plants, commonly called forbs or weeds, are the most important food items in the diet of many wildlife species, especially deer. However, they are seasonal, commonl only during the spring and fall, and not always available.
Deer become more dependent on browse, which is the leaves and stems of trees, shrubs and vines. Browse for deer include plants such as greenbriar, grapevines, hackberry, elm and oak species. Although deer prefer forbs, as these decrease in availability browse plants comprises the bulk of a deer’s diet. Browse species are not as high in protein but they are available on a year round basis. Therefore, they play an important role in the deer’s diet.
Cattle utilize many of the browse species that deer prefer. This competition can be reduced by fencing off wooded areas, especially bottomlands, to exclude cattle during times of the year when available forage is lacking, such as during the summer and winter. This is why it is recommended that livestock be excluded from grazing wooded areas, particularly during the toughest times of the year.