Saturday, May 25, 2024
HomePasture HealthForageWhere's the Poop?

Where’s the Poop?

Everyone says that one of the benefits of management intensive grazing is that the cows put the fertilizer right on the ground where it belongs. But how well are they doing their jobs? Are they spreading the love? Or are they concentrating in particular places? Most importantly, who’s going to do the ground surveys to find out what’s happening? Well, don’t worry, you don’t have to go out and count cow pies because there are researchers out there who have already done it for you.

A 2001 study published in the Journal of Environmental Quality called “Spatial and time distribution of dairy cattle manure in an intensive pasture system” gathered information on where in the pasture the cows pooped and peed for two reasons. First, folks are concerned about the impact of these nutrients on water quality, particularly in pastures with streams running through them. Second, they wanted to get a handle on how much of this deposition was done in the dairy farm’s feeding and milking areas so that operators could get a better sense of how much would have to be moved back out to the pastures or collected and stored in some other way.

Here's a photo, courtesy of Wikipedia, showing what the mapping system for this project may have looked like.
Here’s a photo, courtesy of Wikipedia, showing what the mapping system for this project may have looked like.

Counting feces and urine “events” for all 36 animals in the herd would be difficult, so the scientists designed their research so that they could get a statistically valid sample from only 8 cows. Then they watched these 8 cows day and night while they were on pasture, in the feed area, in the milking parlor or walking between these areas.  During this time “events” were marked with color coded flags and then later mapped. Scientists were so thorough in their work that they used a Topcon Total Station Laser Transit System to map the location of the event and its size. Here’s the map that resulted from their work:

Map of ManureLocations

Their results showed that the more time cows spend in one area, the more likely they are to leave their mark behind. During hotter months, they spent significantly more time near the water source. The purplish bars in the graph below show a large increase in events within 30 meters (about 100 feet) of the water source during times when the cows were mildly heat stressed.

Graph of locations of manure in relation to water

What can we do with this?  

As the scientists concluded, during hot weather you’ll get more even nutrient distribution if you move your water source more often. This leaves a challenge for folks with pastures that include streams and permanent water sources.  Some folks have solved this problem by placing supplement blocks far away from the water. Cows get their drinks and then head back to where they can graze and get goodies.

Our researchers also found that, on average, 84.7% of manure events and 84.1% of urination events occurred in pasture, 9.1% of poops and 12.3% of pees happened in the feeding areas, and only 3.1% of number 1s and 2.1% of number 2s occurred in the miking parlor and parlor areas. This helps dairy operators to plan for reduced manure storage and labor to clean it up, so that they can reduce costs of production.

Thanks to our researchers S.L. White, S.P. Washburn , L.D. King, R.E. Sheffield, and J.T. Green all of North Carolina State University for doing this dirty work for us.  You may have gotten some giggles from others out of it, but we really appreciate your efforts!

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Kathy Voth
Kathy Voth
I am the founder, editor and publisher of On Pasture, now retired. My career spanned 40 years of finding creative solutions to problems, and sharing ideas with people that encouraged them to work together and try new things. From figuring out how to teach livestock to eat weeds, to teaching range management to high schoolers, outdoor ed graduation camping trips with fifty 6th graders at a time, building firebreaks with a 130-goat herd, developing the signs and interpretation for the Storm King Fourteen Memorial trail, receiving the Conservation Service Award for my work building the 150-mile mountain bike trail from Grand Junction, Colorado to Moab, Utah...well, the list is long so I'll stop with, I've had a great time and I'm very grateful.


    • Yes, during our grazing trials we encouraged the staff to do that, to give them time, but they weren’t always willing to wait for them to do so!

  1. Seeing this is just delightful! I’m so glad this research is still being talked about.
    Those were good times sitting out there in the dark listening for that sound…
    We even had pizza delivered out to the pasture one night!
    I miss working with dairy cattle!

    Happy Grazing!!
    Sharon White Bennett

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