Grazing Behaviour

 Knowledge Nuggets | Fact Sheets | Research Papers

Knowledge Nuggets

  • Once understood, cattle behavioural principles provide a variety of solutions in managing and improving the land. Unlike the infrastructure of a ranch such as corrals, fences, and water development, behavioural solutions cost very little to implement and are easily transferred from one situation to the next.
  • Animals learn from social interactions with dams, herd mates, and people, feedback from nutrients and toxins in plants, and interactions with their physical environment including locations of water and predators.
  • People play an important role in how animals behave under new circumstances. Previous experiences influence responses to either fight or flee, to selecting food and habitat and responding to grazing management.
  • Of all feeding methods, cattle prefer grazing. By understanding grazing behaviour, people can improve pasture utilization and lengthen the grazing season.
  • Grazing occupies between 4 - 14 hours/day in beef cattle and is affected by many factors, including environmental conditions, plant species, feed quantity and quality. The animal moves slowly across the pasture with the muzzle close to the ground, using their tongue to circle the plant material and breaking it off with a sharp sideways movement of the head. For this reason, they cannot graze grass shorter than 1 cm, unlike horses or sheep, which can bite more closely to the ground.
  • While grazing, cattle sniff the pasture to determine the palatability of species on the basis of odour. The feel is also important in determining which herbage is rejected or preferred. Cattle prefer to graze forage on the basis of energy content and digestibility, which explains why they prefer to consume leaf material to coarser and longer material.
  • Until recently there appeared to be no evidence for a relationship between leadership and dominance. A recent study looked at patterns of leadership during grazing movements which were divided into following, independence, and leading. It was found that high-ranking animals tend to lead, medium ranks tend to follow and low-ranking animals tend to be independent.
  • Older cattle grazing on rangelands will spend less time grazing than younger cattle due to their experience and familiarity with terrain. More experienced cattle will also influence younger calves to graze longer than they would normally if left by themselves. Old animals also teach the young what plant to consume and how to eat.
  • The time devoted to ruminating is approximately three-quarters of that spent of grazing. This changes by the abundance of pasture, maturity of herbage and environmental factors. Cattle will graze vigorously when they are first moved to a new pasture because the preferred forage is most abundant. However, as the preferred components are consumed, the rate of grazing decreases.
  • Cattle accustomed to frequent moves to fresh paddocks will graze faster than those left in paddocks for long periods. The extent of selection will also be less knowing that the available feed will disappear quickly during the short stay.
  • Cattle moved to fresh paddocks frequently, become less tolerant to poor feed quality and quantity. Through memory, they are able to recognize inferior feed resulting in frequent vocalization to demonstrate discontentment.
  • Cattle become very tolerant of poor grazing conditions provided the changes in feed is very slow. Given that the feed condition changes gradually, cattle will accept very poor pasture quality and quantity as being normal.
  • Cattle in rangelands graze with younger animals in the center of the herd, surrounded by the more aggressive members. Aging and weak will often graze away from the herd, sometimes due to an inability to keep up which exposes them to predator attack.
Fact Sheets

animal - resources for applied ethology

BEHAVE: Behavioral Education for Human, Animal, Vegetation & Ecosystem Management

Behavior Depends on Consquences

Grazing behaviour basics

Grazing behaviour of ruminants - available in PDF format only

Grazing Distribution - available in PDF format only

Learning What to Eat and What to Avoid - available in PDF format only

Palatability - More Than a Matter of Taste - available in PDF format only

Social and Spatial Relationships of Cattle in Range Conditions

Structure Determines Experience, Experience Determines Structure - available in PDF format only

Training Livestock to Leave Streams and Use Uplands - available in PDF format only

Variety is the Spice of Life - available in PDF format only

Research Papers

Cattle herbage utilization patterns under high-density rotational grazing in the Aspen Parkland - available in PDF format only

Deer and Cattle Diets on Summer Range in British Columbia - available in PDF format only

Diet Mixing: Teaching Animals to Eat Unpalatable Plants

Effect of grazing system, stocking rate and season of use on herbage intake and grazing behaviour of stocker cattle grazing alfalfa grass pastures - available in PDF format only

Grazing behaviour and weight change of cattle turned out to pasture in spring - available in PDF format only

Interactions between Mule Deer and Cattle on Big Sagebrush Pasture in British Columbia - available in PDF format only

Nutrient selection by cattle from grass and grass/legume pastures - available in PDF format only

Review: Grazing preference in sheep and cattle: Implications for production, the environment and animal welfare - available in PDF format only
  For more information about the content of this document, contact Grant Lastiwka.
This document is maintained by Linda Hunt.
This information published to the web on April 26, 2006.
Last Reviewed/Revised on May 24, 2017.

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