Water, mineral and shade – all are important to raising healthy livestock. They are also three things that your stock visit often so it’s important to balance convenience for the animal with the potential problems they can cause. For example, putting them all in one spot can encourage animals to stay in one place causing problems like nutrient sinks, over-consumption of minerals, erosion, uneven grazing across pastures, and even decreased forage intake.
Here’s what we know about placement of these resources within a pasture.
For this article I’m writing about tame pastures, primarily east of the Mississippi River. For these landscapes, research indicates the maximum distance to any point in the pasture from a water source should be no more than 800 feet. (Animals on rangeland travel much further than this, anywhere from a quarter mile up to two miles.) If the terrain is hilly then the maximum distance should be shorter, no more than 600 feet. In any case, the goal is to give livestock an unobstructed view of the trough or watering point from the entire pasture. Larger pastures may require more than one water source to reach all points in the pasture within these constraints.
Water sources should ideally be located within the interior of a pasture with a second, but still good choice, of a point midway along a fence line between pasture corners. The least desirable location for a water source is a corner of a pasture where livestock will congregate.
So why is the 600 to 800 feet maximum distance important? When travel distance is kept within this range, cattle will go to the water source or trough one at a time. If the distance to the water source is much more than this, they will go as a group. This is noteworthy for several reasons. When cattle go to a water source as a group, their movement to and from the source is dictated by a boss cow. She gets to drink first and will stay until she gets her fill. All of the other cows drink after her, or at the same time if there is room at the trough (another reason to not put the trough in a corner and create a bottleneck) and they all leave when she leaves, regardless if they have quenched their thirst or not. Cows that do not get their fill of water raise lighter calves. Also when cattle go to the trough as a group, they go in a single file line to the trough. This creates a trail that can, and does, become an erosion concern.
When the distance to water from any point in the pasture is less than 600 to 800 feet and they can see the other cows in the pasture, they will go to the water when they need it, stay as long as they need to and will not travel down a well worn trail.
Shade is beneficial to livestock. Animals with access to shade gain more weight, dairy cows give more milk, and their reproduction and fertility rates improve. And, as with water, good distribution of shade is important.
We have all seen a pasture that has one tree with all of the cows in the pasture crowded together under it. This is NOT how to provide shade to livestock. You would likely be better off cutting this tree down and providing no shade. Why? First you have bare ground under the tree, creating erosion. Next, the congregating animals also cause soil compaction, making growth of forages and the tree itself difficult and contributing even more to erosion when water does not infiltrate from precipitation events. Third, when the livestock regularly congregate in one place, all of the nutrients from defecation and urination end up in one place within the pasture creating a nutrient sink. Finally, when the livestock crowd together in the shade, they often create a mini-environment that is hotter and more humid than if they were out in the sun on the open pasture.
All of these are good reasons for ensuring that, if you’re providing shade, it is in several locations, not just one.
Never put your minerals next to the watering point or in the shade. Put it somewhere else so that animals will not congregate in one location and will move across the pasture. Be sure not to use one location over and over. Leaving it in one spot permanently can cause such high mineral levels in the soil that plants will not grow there even after the minerals have been relocated for some time.
By providing water, shade and minerals with an eye toward animal behavior, you can enhance livestock distribution in pasture. Evenly distributed livestock means even distribution of feces and urine which means even distribution of nutrients for forages to benefit from. It also means even utilization of forages across the pasture which in turn means managing for proper utilization across the whole pasture is achievable.