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Grazing Without Fences: the Economics of Supplement Blocks to Target Grazing

By   /  August 31, 2015  /  1 Comment

Are your livestock under-using some parts of your pasture? Would you like an alternative to fencing to get them to graze in those places? Well, here’s a potential solution for moving your livestock across large landscapes and help them gain more weight too. Xcel-based calculators are included to help you estimate costs of using this tool.

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Dr. Derek Bailey, professor and director of the Chihuahuan Desert Rangeland Research Center at New Mexico State University.

Dr. Derek Bailey, professor and director of the Chihuahuan Desert Rangeland Research Center at New Mexico State University.

When Derek Bailey began looking at ways to move animals across landscapes it was because he wanted a way to protect riparian areas from damage due to overgrazing. He and his fellow researchers set low-moisture supplement blocks on ungrazed uplands and then herded the cattle to the area.  “We were flabbergasted! We were just terribly surprised,” he said, when they found that went from spending 1% of their time in the study plot, to them spending 32% of their time within 600 yards of the low-moisture supplement blocks. It got them thinking about how ranchers could use this tool to improve the quality of their rangelands for livestock and wildlife while improving profits at the same time.

Derek describes the results of his work in this 19 minute video. In case you’ve got a slow connection, I’ve included the video’s highlights below along with tips for getting started with low-moisture blocks.

Tablet readers click here.
The video is part of a SARE-funded grant I worked on with Beth Burritt of Utah State University. Our focus was on sharing ways that folks can use animal behavior to accomplish their goals rather than spending money on equipment and infrastructure.

What’s a Low-Moisture Supplement Block?

The product is made by heating up molasses and then cooling it into a very hard block that can only be licked, not bitten or chewed. Different manufacturers have different recipes but in general they all provide additional energy, protein and vitamin and minerals. They were originally created to be a supplement to low quality forage. They work because the protein in the supplement feeds the rumen’s microbes. That gives the microbes the ability to break down mature/dry forage and turn it into something useable.

The positive feedback from the nutrition in the block and the nutrition that animals can make from licking it explains why low-moisture blocks are a better attractant than salt. Derek explains:

“A lot of people have asked me over the years, wouldn’t salt work just as well? It’s a lot cheaper and we put it out there anyway. And my answer is ‘Sure salt helps. But it’s not very persuasive. It’s not very powerful.” These maps, showing the movements of radio-collared cows demonstrate what he’s talking about.  The pink dots on the first map show where cows grazed in relationship to the placement of the low-moisture blocks.  The blue dots on the second map show that grazing was much more dispersed when there was only salt placed in the pasture.

Map of grazing with low-moisture blocks placed in the top center of the map.

Map of grazing with low-moisture blocks placed in the top center of the map.

Map of grazing when salt was placed in the upper center of the map (see the 2 white dots).

Map of grazing when salt was placed in the upper center of the map (see the 2 white dots).

Derek also found out that low-moisture blocks were better attractants than either hay or range cake. As Derek says:

“Low moisture blocks last a long time, so they’re always there. But if you feed something like hay or cake, animals will readily come, eat it all up and spend about an hour a day where we feed. But if we put a low-moisture block they’ll spend 5 hours within 100 yards of the location.” He also notes that feeding hay or cake requires a lot more time and money to deliver.

Are Low-Moisture Blocks For You?

Find out by asking yourself some questions. First, do you have a forage quality problem? The answer is yes if you look out at your pastures and your grass is not green and you see lots of dry, mature forage.  Like this picture from the video:

Low Quality Forage

Next, do you have a distribution problem?  Are there areas of your range or pasture that are rarely used? Derek’s review of pastures in Montana and in New Mexico showed that in large pastures with rough or steep terrain about 1/3 of the pasture received very little grazing. If that’s the case in your pasture, what would happen if you could use that pasture? Derek figures that using that pasture could extend the grazing season or allow more cattle to be run on the same amount of pasture.

Is It Economical?

Rangeland Economist, Dr. Alan Turrell puts it this way, “If you can replace relatively high-priced hay by staying out on rangeland longer because of feeding the block then that was a very valuable, economical tool.” Ranchers like Melvin Armstrong who participated in one of the studies in Montana said that using low-moisture blocks allowed them to use rangeland that hadn’t been used in the 4o years he’d been running his ranch. But specifics about the costs will vary by location and forage conditions at different ranches. Turrell suggests that ranchers do what they normally do: figure out what the cost is compared to the potential benefit in gain and reduced winter forage costs to determine what will work best in their particular case. To make that easier, here’s an Xcel-based calculator where you can plug in the cost of winter feed and compare it to the cost of using low-moisture blocks to extend the grazing season.

How Do You Use Low-Moisture Blocks?

Here are Derek’s tips for being successful:

Cows lick molasses block1. Make sure the animals know what the blocks are before you begin.
“You can’t expect a cow to walk a long ways if they don’t know what the product is,” says Derek. They introduced the blocks to their herd at calving season when the cows were close to the home place. Then when they saw it out on range they knew what it was and they were more likely to travel long distances, up a steep hill to go eat it.

2. There has to be something around the block for them to graze.

3. Show your animals where the block is.
You can place the block and then herd the cows to it the first time so that they know where it is. Then they’ll return on their own to eat it. Once cattle know where a block is, you can place subsequent blocks in a succession, 200 yards or so from the first one, working your way across the landscape. Just don’t put the new block too far from the old one, or they may not find it. Also, the more mountainous your terrain, or the more trees you have, the more you need to do to make sure your herd knows where you are putting new blocks. In Montana, where it was fairly open, Derek found that the cattle would follow the paths where he had driven his vehicle to drop off the next tub. Other researchers have trained cattle to recognize a flag that they placed near the low-moisture block. When the cows saw the flag, they headed over to find their new block. The flag could then be used to move cattle easily to new locations. Finally, Derek says, “You don’t have to show every single animal.  If you show a fourth to a third of the herd, the rest will soon learn where it is.

How Much Product Do You Need?

4wheeler and trailer hauling supplementDerek has found that one 250 pound supplement tub will last 25 cows 2 weeks. But if you can’t drive to your location, you’ll need to consider the smaller size tubs and adjust your quantities accordingly. Derek has hauled smaller tubs on pack horse, but normally used the 250 pound tubs, hauling them with a 4-wheeler and a trailer.

Ranchers See Success

Participants in the study were very positive about the results.  One noted that it kept his cows in a part of the pasture that was rarely used, giving rest to other areas that were typically grazed hard. Another said it gave him summer pasture that he wouldn’t otherwise have, and without that he’d graze 400 less cattle and one less family would be able to make a living at the ranch.

Figuring If It Works For You

Beth Burritt at Utah State University put together a couple of Xcel based calculators to help you do the math for figuring out how much nutrient you need and how much supplementing with low moisture block might compare to feeding hay during the winter. You can download them below and use them to see how low moisture blocks might help you out.

Nutrient Reqs and Costs

Click to download and use this calculator.

Click to download this calculator and try it out.

Click to download this calculator and try it out.

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About the author

editor and contributor

Kathy worked with the Bureau of Land Management for 12 years before founding Livestock for Landscapes in 2004. Her twelve years at the agency allowed her to pursue her goal of helping communities find ways to live profitably AND sustainably in their environment. She has been researching and working with livestock as a land management tool for over a decade. When she's not helping farmers, ranchers and land managers on-site, she writes articles, and books, and edits videos to help others turn their livestock into landscape managers.

1 Comment

  1. Paul Sharpe says:

    These low moisture blocks seem like an ideal tool for a low moisture environment. In the high moisture environment of southeastern Ontario, I could pump water from a creek to water troughs in order to increase the frequency of drinking by heifers and shift the location of defecations from the creek and riparian zone to the upland zone.

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