You’ll get the most from pastured cattle when they can graze effectively and efficiently, points out Holly Boland, Mississippi State University animal scientist.
“Having a good basic understanding of cattle grazing behavior will help you to anticipate their impact on the pasture and ultimately help improve your grazing management skills,” says Boland.
Cattle usually consume three to five large meals over the course of a day, she says. The largest meals are eaten around sunrise and sunset, with a few smaller meals in between. Overall, they usually graze from six to 11 hours every day. The bulk of that grazing will be during the day. The exception is when daytime air temperature and humidity levels are high. Then cattle may graze at night when conditions are less harsh.
“The biting rate of cattle is an impressive 30 to 60 bites per minute,” says Boland. “Variation in an animal’s biting rate can be due to many factors, one of which is the condition of the pasture.”
In a pasture of short, sparse forage, cattle take more but small bites. In lush, thick pasture, the animal may take fewer bites, but each bite contains more forage. That can also impact the total time they spend grazing each day. Where there is an ample supply of good-quality forage, cattle will spend less total time grazing than when the quantity and/or quality of forage are inadequate.
Cattle prefer different parts of plants based on palatability. When pasture conditions are less than favorable, cattle spend extra time searching for the most palatable forage available. Even though they may graze longer, their intake may not differ or may even be less than that of cattle in pastures with adequate forage.
Cattle will consume young, tender leaves before eating more mature leaves or stems. That’s also why pastures may become “patchy” under continuous grazing conditions. Cattle will graze certain areas of a pasture, then revisit at a later date to graze the regrowth, never allowing the area to become too mature. Areas with more mature forages will be ignored because of their decreased palatability. All this leads to under- and over-grazed patches in pasture.
Cattle also avoid new pasture growth too near their own feces; that growth then matures and becomes less palatable. Cattle may eventually return to graze an area when feces have broken down, but if there is more palatable forage elsewhere, they will graze that first.
Pasture condition also impacts how much time animals spend ruminating each day. In general, cattle probably ruminate five to nine hours each 24-hour period. Most ruminating occurs at night when cattle are bedded down, but they also ruminate between meals. The more mature the forage consumed, the more time animals must spend ruminating to break down that forage for further digestion.
Daily intake may be restricted when it takes an animal an excessive amount of time to ruminate mature forage. Since the biggest meals of the day are at dawn and dusk, interrupting those meals causes a change in the animals’ natural grazing behavior.
If you’re feeding a supplement, consider feeding it in the middle of the day or early afternoon, when cattle graze less heavily.
“Take the opportunity to watch your cattle during different times of the day and pick up on their customary behaviors,” Boland advises. “Also take note of how they behave when grazing during different times of the year, when grazing various types of forage and when different supplemental feeds or hay are offered. Having the knowledge of what their routine behaviors are will help you determine how well they are responding when new or different management regimes are being implemented.”