How much time do cattle spend in streams? Not so much, say OSU Extension researchers

Article photo
A cow and calf drink from Catherine Creek in northeastern Oregon. Photo by Bob Rost.

Using precise tracking technology, Oregon State University researchers determined that cattle spend less time in streams than most people think—the average is between 1 and 2.5 percent of their time on the range.

John Williams, an Extension rangeland expert based in Wallowa County, and his colleagues put affordable GPS collars on beef cows, enabling them to map cows’ positions across five spring-to-fall grazing seasons.

They discovered that well-managed cows went down to the water when they needed to drink or cross, but did not typically linger there. The cows spent most of their time grazing on higher ground or resting on dry areas away from the stream. All cows studied were being managed under approved grazing management plans.

The collars recorded the cows’ locations about every five minutes, yielding more than 3.7 data points over the five-year study. “With this GPS technology, we can get a body of data we can really analyze, and we can start answering controversial questions with confidence,” Williams says.

Cattle grazing, especially on public lands, has been controversial at least since the 1980s, when ecological studies documented the environmental damage to rangelands from a 150-year history of livestock grazing. The findings and public pressure led to the adoption of grazing management practices aimed at protecting streams while still allowing livestock use.

The researchers found that the cows used only about 10 to 25 percent of the stream length, avoiding steep, slippery banks and inaccessible areas. Williams noted that the study areas also contain non-stream sources of water, such as developed springs and ponds. In some months the cattle drank exclusively from those man-made sources, suggesting that they are useful range management tools that help to decrease cattle use of streams and riparian areas.

Source: John Williams, Wallowa County Extension.

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