Among some prairie enthusiasts, there seems to be a perception that plains bison are magical creatures that live in complete harmony with the prairie. They eat grasses but not wildflowers, they float just above the ground to avoid stepping on plants or compacting the soil, and they create tidy little wallows that fill with rainwater for tadpoles and wading birds. Cattle, on the other hand, are evil creatures that seek and destroy wildflowers, removing them from prairies forever. They also stomp all over prairies, trampling plants and birds to death and causing cascades of soil erosion and water pollution.
Let me be clear: I’m a big fan of bison. I feel very fortunate to spend time at The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve and other big prairies where I can observe and photograph bison up close. Bison are distinctive, attractive animals that evoke a sense of history and grandeur… but they are also big stompy animals that go wherever they want, poop all over the place, rub on trees, trample plants (and animals), and can cause erosion issues. None of that is good or bad; it just is.
I’m a fan of cattle too. They have big beautiful eyes, individual personalities, and can be more playful than their typically stoic faces might hint at. I enjoy spending time around cattle at our Platte River Prairies and in my own family prairie. In both places, they are a major part of our prairie management strategy, which is aimed at creating and maintaining diverse plant communities and high quality wildlife habitat. (And yes, cattle are also big stompy animals that go wherever they want, poop all over, rub on trees, trample plants and animals, and cause erosion issues.)
TREES AND PONDS
While both bison and cattle can be engaging creatures, there are a few real differences between the way bison and cattle utilize and impact prairies. However, those differences are less stark than you might think. Based on the best available research and expert knowledge, the biggest distinction between bison and cattle behavior in prairies essentially boils down to this: cattle hang around water and trees more than bison do.
That general pattern is reported in many studies comparing the two, but was most reliably demonstrated in a recent study at The Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Oklahoma, where GPS collars tracked animal locations through time. That study looked at bison and cattle at similar stocking rates and under the same management regime (patch-burn grazing) – though the bison were grazing year-round in a 23,000 acre pasture while cattle were only present for 7 months/year in pastures of around 1000-2000 acres. The GPS collars showed that cattle were attracted to ponds and trees while bison tended to avoid areas near water and showed no attraction to trees. Importantly, the same study also showed strong similarities between bison and cattle behavior, namely that both were strongly attracted to the most recently burned areas of pastures and tended to avoid steep slopes.
The conclusion that cattle are attracted to water and shade fits with one of the big objections to cattle grazing by some prairie enthusiasts – that cattle tend to “wreck” areas near ponds and tree groves by repeatedly stomping around and defecating in those places. While that can be true, those impacts are highest under high stocking rates, and can be avoided by fencing out ponds and trees or greatly reduced by providing long rest periods between grazing bouts. Those impacts are also less severe in larger pastures, especially when multiple water and shade options are available and cattle are encouraged (or forced) to use each area intermittently. The attraction of cattle to wet and shaded areas can be a real challenge, but it’s not an insurmountable one.
The other beef prairie enthusiasts have with cattle (sorry) has to do with their diet. The perception of many is that bison subsist solely on grass, leaving wildflowers untouched, while cattle eat a high percentage of forbs (broad-leaved plants), often leading to the decline of those species over time. The purported result is that bison-grazed prairies maintain high plant diversity, including an abundance of rare plant species, while cattle-grazed prairies become degraded as numerous forb species are grazed out of existence. While that’s a big overgeneralization, it’s an understandable one because a number of research projects have reached that conclusion.
Unfortunately, those research projects have largely compared bison and cattle under very different circumstances. Diet comparisons are usually made between bison in a single huge pasture (often under patch-burn grazing management) and cattle in a rotational grazing system – often at a higher stocking rate. As a result, it’s not clear whether observed differences between bison and cattle diets are due to biological differences or grazing systems.
Imagine if you were given 30 days’ worth of groceries at the beginning of each month. You’d likely eat many of your favorite foods first and then make do with whatever’s left toward the end of the month. Comparing your diet to that of someone who was allowed to go grocery shopping every day would be completely unfair, wouldn’t it? Unfortunately, that’s essentially the comparison made by many research projects comparing the diets of cattle and bison. Cattle in a rotational grazing system can only choose from the available plants in their particular paddock, and don’t get a new set of choices until they are moved into a new paddock. In contrast, cattle or bison that spend their whole season in a large pasture, especially one in which a portion has been recently burned, can regulate their diet much more freely. They spend most of their time eating their favorite foods (mostly grasses) in the most recently burned patch, but they can also travel elsewhere if the supply in that patch runs low. In addition, by regrazing their favorite plants over and over, livestock can keep them in a state of high nutritional value for much of the season.
We did some research back in 2001 in which we evaluated the forage choices of cattle in a patch-burn grazing system under a moderate stocking rate (Helzer and Steuter 2005). Our data showed that those cattle were very selective toward grasses, and ate very few forbs under those conditions. That research, along with observations other scientists and cattle managers at patch-burn grazed sites, has led to an altered perception of the forage selection differences between cattle and bison – namely, that many of the differences are driven more by grazing system than by biology.
Prairie managers have to make difficult decisions about how to create and maintain diverse plant and animal communities at their sites. One big choice is whether to graze or not to graze a particular prairie. Regardless of whether it is grazed by bison or cattle, a grazed prairie is going to look and act very differently than an ungrazed prairie. Many plants will be stepped on and eaten. Some portions of the prairie will be more heavily visited than others and will get trampled down. Short-lived opportunistic plants will become more abundant, due to the weakening of dominant grasses through repeated grazing. Some managers will see those effects as positive, but others will not – depending upon the management needs of a particular prairie. Regardless, deciding whether or not to graze has far greater consequences than the subsequent decision about whether to graze with bison or cattle.
If the decision to graze has been made, it’s important to recognize the appropriate criteria for deciding between bison and cattle. Bison do act somewhat differently than cattle, especially around water and trees. However, those differences depend heavily on scale. Both cattle and bison create areas of bare soil around drinking water sources, and both create trails as they move from one favorite place to another. In small pastures, those impacts are multiplied because both bison and cattle are forced to visit the same places repeatedly, which can lead to repeated trampling of plants, soil compaction, and other issues. The differences between a small bison-grazed pasture and a small cattle-grazed pasture are pretty minimal.
In larger pastures (thousands of acres in size), grazing animals have room to spread out. At that scale, bison-grazed pastures tend to have fewer heavily grazed and trampled areas near trees and standing water than cattle pastures do. While that can certainly be a perk of using bison, it’s also important to remember that even in large cattle-grazed pastures, the proportion of the overall pasture that receives that kind of heavy impact is very small. In addition, there are management options that can be used to minimize the size and severity of those impacts by cattle. Those include fenced exclosures around sensitive areas and tactics that shift the locations where cattle spend most of their time (such as creating new burned patches, turning on/off drinking water facilities, and moving mineral feeders around). The upshot is that there can be some prairie conservation benefits of using bison. However, those benefits accrue most strongly in very large pastures, and even at that scale, there are cattle management strategies that can close that gap considerably. On the flip side, bison come with their own set of complications and costs.
I spend most of my time working at our Platte River Prairies, and I’m often asked why we don’t have bison at those sites. There are several good reasons for that, starting with management flexibility. The cattle that graze our Platte River Prairies belong to our neighbors, and our lease arrangements allow us to dictate how many, where, and for how long cattle graze each year. Between years, or even within years, we can pretty easily change those plans if we get unexpected weather patterns or just don’t like the way things look. That kind of adaptive management is much more difficult with bison, especially because if we had bison, we’d have to own the herd and keep them on our prairies year round.
A second reason we use cattle is financial. It takes a much lower investment in infrastructure and personnel to lease cattle than to own bison. We have to provide a good perimeter fence (usually a four-wire barbed wire fence) to hold cattle in our pasture, and provide water for them to drink. Beyond that, the owner of the cattle trucks them in when we ask for them, and then gathers and trucks them away again when we’re done. If we owned a bison herd, we would need a much stouter, and more expensive fence, and a very expensive corral system to use for an annual roundup, sorting, and inoculation process. In addition, we would be responsible for conducting that roundup, doctoring animals when if needed, and for dealing with buying/selling animals to maintain our desired herd size. All of that takes time and people, and that’s expensive. At our Niobrara Valley Preserve, the 22,000 acres of bison pasture can hold enough bison that income from selling excess animals covers many of those costs. That wouldn’t pencil out in our much smaller prairies down on the Platte River.
The last reason we run cattle instead of bison is that in our relatively small prairies (200-600 acres), the behavior of bison would not be very different than that of cattle. We might see less stomping around in standing water and under trees, but we can already manage those impacts by controlling whether/how often cattle have access to those areas. Most importantly, through our use of patch-burn grazing, electric fence enclosures and exclosures, and our ability to set and change grazing intensity, timing, and frequency, we are getting the prairie management impacts we want by using cattle. We can get cattle to graze very selectively in order to suppress grasses and give wildflowers a chance to flourish, and to create the kind of patchy habitat structure many wildlife and insect species need to thrive. In other cases, we can get them to graze much less selectively in order to create a particular habitat structure or other impact. As a result, we are maintaining resilient and diverse prairies – and that is our ultimate goal.
Plains bison nearly disappeared completely from the grasslands of North America as European settlement spread across the continent. The ongoing recovery of bison is an important indicator of prairie conservation success, and I hope that upward trend continues. At the same time, I worry about the tendency of some to heap accolades upon bison while dismissing cattle as inherently destructive. The differences between them simply don’t warrant that kind of broad categorization. If grassland conservation is our goal, we should be sure we’re open to using whatever strategies (or animals) can help achieve that. In very large prairies, bison may be the best fit – assuming the logistics and costs of owning bison make sense. In other situations, however, deciding whether bison or cattle are most appropriate is not a simple matter. It’s a decision that should be based on facts and management objectives – not on aesthetics or mythology.
Just to head off any comments that I missed it… yes, I’m aware of the excellent study at Kansas State University that looked at bison and cattle in similar sized pastures. (http://www.fws.gov/southwest/es/documents/R2ES/LitCited/LPC_2012/Towne_et_al_2005.pdf). Towne and colleagues provided an interesting twist by evaluating diet selection and other impacts of both bison and cattle in small pastures. In other words, they treated both animals as cattle are treated and looked for differences. It’s a very useful addition to the literature on the topic, but still doesn’t address the more difficult question of how both animals act when they are given very large pastures and free choice of forage selection across a whole season. Interestingly, the Towne study concluded that the overall effect of cattle vs. bison in those small pastures was minimal.
Excellent post Chris.
Excellent post. And as you mentioned, trampling of some of those small water pockets and the surrounding ground is not without benefits. In addition to shorebirds, the open character of those wetlands are more attractive to many breeding dabbling ducks. And according to the most recent version of “Beef, Brush, and Bobwhites” by Fred Guthery and Fidel Hernandez heavy trampling can also be used to create natural “food plots” for gamebirds and songbirds, as the bare soil can produce excellent growth of ragweed, annual sunflower and other weeds.
Where I live the price of land drove ranchers out a long time ago. However, equestrians continue to pay the price necessary to keep horses. This leads to the question, Would grazing with horses lead to similar ecological benefits that occur from grazing Bison or Cattle?
Horses have bad grazing habits, unless you like the idea of them standing in one place and eating everything down so that bluegrass dominates. If you understand them, you can use them as a tool. If you simply substitute them for a ruminant you are liable to get unforeseen results.
Have you considered that the horse occupied the prairies long before bison? The horse went extinct and the bison came to the prairies more recently by migrating over the Bering land bridge.
Have you considered that a horse makes a poor burger (I heard they taste sweet, but our society doesn’t eat them) and eats 1 1/2 times the amount of food of a cow due to it’s inefficient digestive tract. People who support allowing horses on public lands need to see what horses do to our public lands and they need to learn how to pull weeds; we can eat Bison. An issue I have with Chris’s article is that he did not disclose to the audience what type of prairie this article was based upon. The tall grass prairies in Kansas cannot be compared with the prairies in Montana. The management of tall grass and short grass prairies are very different and I do not want people to think that the management of these two types are interchangeable. What you said about the horse is true, however with our shrinking supply of grazing land, the horse is not an option.
That was a good read. I find your posts on grazing very interesting. I work at a NWR in MN where we just started a grazing program (with cattle) in FY2013. Although the habitat that we are managing for is oak savanna, there is still no shortage of valuable information in your posts. Thanks for sharing your experiences!
I view the use of bison or cattle as a tool, which should be used in many cases, but which should always be considered in terms of particular management or restoration goals. I don’t think of it as part of the restoration product or outcome. In other words, adding bison to a prairie doesn’t necessarily make a prairie any more natural than it is without bison. Historical bison movements were on a spatial scale far greater than many of the places bison are presently confined, and it is unlikely the impacts of bison were homogeneous on the plains and prairies. There were locations that bison moved through frequently and other locations that were seldom visited or visited most often during certain seasons, all of this determined by landscape features, forage quality differences related to underlying floristic differences moving west to east, more transient snow packs on the Great Plains versus the Upper Midwest, and etc. So, in my mind, a uniform view of the use of cattle or bison could be destructive, if it intersects with locations where the historical impacts of bison were minimal or different due to scaling the bison down to tens, hundreds, or thousands of acres versus hundreds of thousands or millions of acres. Their use can be constructive, where elements of a community that are of conservation concern require the types of disturbance cattle or bison create for population maintenance. …and as we move into taller grass towards the east, we might also consider the relative historical abundance of elk, which presumably behave differently from either cattle or bison.
This brings me to S. Wisconsin, where I find myself now. Here, most prairies are not grazed and have not been grazed for some time. Some are very small, but there are tracts of prairie and marsh that extend for hundreds and even thousands of contiguous acres (The Scuppernong River Habitat Area). Despite the lack of grazing, prairies here are ridiculously forby, with large areas where forb abundance and production rivals or exceeds that of grasses (Chris’ calendar prairies). So, I do not believe there is a story so simple as the one that says “grazing maintains forb diversity over grass dominance.” That said there are species here that are rare and would benefit from the type of disturbance that cattle or bison would create. Fringed gentians grow along foot paths and in foot prints left behind by botanical field tours. False foxgloves are most prevalent where soil disturbances have occurred. The story is the same for countless other more common, short-lived, native plants. However, these plants all seem to have an ability to reside in seed banks for long periods of time, so even long disturbance intervals permit their persistence, even if they are not in evidence some years.
Dan, great comments. I agree with your statement that “grazing maintains forb diversity over grass dominance” doesn’t always apply to eastern tallgrass prairies, especially in places such as WI. I think a better question there is, “Can grazing be used in way that improves habitat quality for wildlife/insects without causing unacceptable damage to plant communities or other prairie features?” That’s an unanswered, but important question, I think. Cattle (or bison) grazing is clearly not appropriate on many eastern tallgrass prairie remnants – especially small ones – but for some of the larger sites, I think experimentation might lead to some possible solutions to habitat issues for declining prairie wildlife.
I agree. I also think that east of the Missouri River, we need to do research to learn what, if any role, elk could play to that effect.
To the general population who are not ranchers, farmers or even prairie managers, cattle have a negative cultural image. And it is hard to counter a negative image with science. In today’s “green” awakening, we see bison as the tragic recipient of our past sins and the cow as the iconic winner of the bison tragedy. So, grassland with bison is natural prairie and grassland with cattle is just range land.
Even among the prairie enthusiast population, I think this generalized perception exists, perhaps more so in the eastern prairie states and decreasing as ones moves west. In the eastern tallgrass area where I work, I can’t think of any nearby prairies that are managed by cattle. However, many of them still bear the deep scars of past cattle grazing. One could argue however, that cattle grazing, even in the abusive manner that most were implemented, saved the majority of the scant prairie remnants we have left.
David, in the east some prairie remnants also survived through grazing by goats (so-called goat prairies) which were more effective at removing woody browse and could be more easily managed than even cattle. I wonder how goats stack up against cows in this regard….do they more preference for forbs than cattle?
Patrick, goats are much stronger forb feeders than cattle, as are sheep. That makes those animals more difficult to use when forb diversity is a priority, but as with cattle, much can be done with careful strategic management. I think the big key is to not allow goats (or cattle, for that matter!) to graze the same place the same way year after year. …and make sure you have good objectives and can measure whether or not you’re reaching them! That said, I’m not generally a fan of goat grazing on diverse prairies. I just think there are other better options most of the time. Even for invasive plant control, goats rarely do more than buy time by preventing reproduction – even years of repeated grazing of perennial invasive plants usually doesn’t kill them.
I have only worked with goats a few times now. Besides being cute and fun, they have the big advantage (over cattle) of not significantly damaging (trampling) fragile goat prairies. If not given a choice, they will eat almost anything. I can easily see the benefit of using goats to control a large outbreak of invasive annuals or biennials, but I question the benefit of using them to control perennials. However, it is awful nice to cut and treat brush after the goats have opened everything up, so using goats to denude nasty brush prior to sending in a hand crew might be a cost effective option.
I have been thinking about how right-of-way managers used periodic mowing as a management tool for decades. This saved many prairies along road, railroad tracks, and utility corridors from the invasion of brush that would have destroyed them. Now many right-of-way managers use the cheaper alternative, broad cast spraying of herbicides. This has destroyed many quality remnants that until recently survived under a management routine of periodic mowing. I have been pondering whether a couple mowings would be a better alternative than spraying herbicide on the flush of seedling that occurs after brush had been cleared for the restoration of former prairies or savannahs. Your comment about cattle grazing saving “the majority of the scant prairie remnants” made me think of my thoughtful question. Maybe someone will have some helpful input.
My hunch is, looking at the majority of the degraded remnants in my area, that as many or perhaps more plant species were lost by using broadleaf herbicides for noxious weed control than were lost due to overgrazing. So, yes, I think mowing to control woody invasion can make sense, especially when you are dealing with at risk insects that overwinter in the duff. On my own land, I have never had the courage to do any broadcast herbicide spraying in my remnants. I am always afraid I will do unknown damage as I don’t feel my plant ID skills in identifying tiny seedlings or my herbicide persistence knowledge are comprehensive enough. I stick to the labor intensive hand work in order to be as selective as possible.
Many managers mow prairie restorations on agricultural lands a few times in there first and second year, particularly towards the east, to alleviate the very same problem.
David – I think you hit the nail on the head. Several times. You’re right that science alone won’t counter the negative image of cattle. I think that will happen slowly, as more people, especially in eastern tallgrass, get to see cattle grazing result in positive impacts. It’s happening already, but will take time for people to get comfortable with when it is or isn’t appropriate. That goes for grazing in general, actually, but cattle grazing in particular, of course.
Good post, Chris. As you know, we have had cattle on a 300-acre area of our Kankakee Sands restoration for six years and have been pretty happy with the impacts. The problem is, we can’t expand much beyond that area because we have WRP easements over most of the property, and cattle grazing is not allowed on those easements. So we are considering adding bison – which NRCS is willing to consider as compatible – to the project to expand the amount of grazed prairie we can provide to the birds, plants, and other groups that like it. I want to have monitoring in place to look at veg impacts of the bison vs. the cattle – it’ll be interesting.
Ellen, perhaps you and/or Chris would like to comment on a question I’ve been considering. As we learn more about the potential benefits of grazing, I wonder about the potential of changing conservation easements to allow prescribed grazing. I imagine that during the early days, easements protecting prairie did not allow grazing (FYI, I have a clause in mine that allows for prescribed grazing). Can easement donor and holder come back together and agree to revise an easement to allow prescribed grazing? Chris, do you know whether TNC or its partners have encountered this and what they did about it?
Great question Patrick, I’m not an expert on easements, but my understanding is that most are very difficult to change once implemented. You’re right that more federal easements allow at least some limited grazing these days than they used to – it’s nice to see them adapt over time as we learn. That’s good news. Unfortunately, those who signed older easements are not helped much by that. It’s one of the big downsides of perpetual easements.
I was put off by your introductory sentence, which is condescending, dismissive, and ultimately misleading. I know plenty of fellow ecologists who believe that bison are better suited to the prairie than are cattle. I don’t know of any who think that bison are “magical creatures that live in complete harmony with the prairie.” That language constitutes mere pandering, which I would expect to encounter on some rabidly biased political blog.
Other than that, I quite enjoyed the rest of your informative post, though I’m not convinced that cattle vs. bison impacts on riparian habitat are trivial under typical grazing management scenarios.
I think the first sentence is true. I have definitely heard that sentiment. It’s why conservation groups like to put images of bison on their fund-raising materials.
To quote Mr. Helzer: Seriously?
Conservation groups put bison on their fund-raising materials because bison are charismatic megafauna, symbolic of intact prairies populated by native flora and fauna. Not because potential donors think that bison “float just above the ground to avoid stepping on plants or compacting the soil.”
That type of caricature strikes me as similar to suggesting that “all liberals really want is free stuff, and they think the free stuff grows on trees.” Or, “Second Amendment advocates don’t care how many kids get killed in schools.” I don’t think it does much good to frame the debate in a way that instantly mocks and trivializes alternative points of view.
Other than the intro paragraph, I thought the rest of the essay was excellent.
I’m a friend of Chris’ who has followed his post from the start and I can assure you he was utilizing hyperbole in the first paragraph as a means to make us (the readers) take notice and think. When I read that paragraph, in my mind I could see Chris smile and wink, letting us know he’s using words to give us a playful nudge in the ribs with his elbow. Hopefully, those of us who might resemble to a small degree aspects of his outlandish caricature will rise to the bait and think hard about what he says in the rest of the post. We might self-reflect and question our assumptions, we might engage in the discussion with a reply to the comments section of the post.
If you choose to interpret the first paragraph literally, you’re making a mistake because it’s not meant to be literal.
Thanks Steve – you characterized my intent very well. Sorry I’ve not kept up with these comments as well as I should have, I’m traveling this week, and am not online much. Pretty interesting stream of thoughts so far!
Steven, I’m sorry you didn’t like the first paragraph. I may have been overly glib in my characterization, but I was hoping to get people’s attention and tried to be outlandish enough that people would understand that it was an over-the-top caricature. That said, I have met and talked with people who are much closer to that caricature than you might expect. I’m glad you enjoyed the rest of the essay. It has apparently stimulated some thought and conversation, which was a big part of my intent. Thanks for your comments.
Dear Steven, your choice of comparisons makes me worry about you. I suggest a good meal, a good night’s sleep, and some relaxation. Please remember there are much more important things in life than whether land managers graze with cows or bison.
What I really need to do is recognize that the quarrelsome tone employed by nearly everyone in the comments section of my local newspaper’s website isn’t appropriate everywhere. I do have to say (to winters18944 up above) that I didn’t take Chris’ opening paragraph “literally.” I took it as a rhetorical device. Upon reflection, I can see that I’ve spent the past few days in a rather humorless mood. My bad.
Excellent article! I couldn’t agree more. I do wonder what impact the inability of cattle to over-winter in most rangelands has on the plant community? Perhaps not much. Do you know of any relevant studies? Beyond the plant community scope of this post, I do wonder if there is any bigger difference between the two species than the inability to over-winter, particularly in the north and west. That deficiency requires large amounts of petroleum and land conversion to overcome through trucking, feedlotting, and irrigated/fertilized domestic forage (hay and corn). It would be interesting to examine the conservation implications of cattle vs. bison beyond the plant community level. Perhaps a future post : )
Jarren, it’s a great question. I don’t know of any research, but do know that winter grazing by cattle can be a good prairie management tool. Our friend GS says one of the best prairies he knows of in Nebraska is one that is winter grazed only. Of course, with cattle – as you say – winter grazing usually requires supplementation with hay and other feed, which causes ripple effects. I don’t know if breeding programs could help produce cattle that require less winter supplementation?
Great post Chris.
Last winter, I saw a study or presentation about GPS collars on cattle in eastern Oregon and Idaho to study the impact of wolf introduction. The wolves introduced themselves to Oregon. One of the side notes of the study, is that the cattle spent less than 1% of the time in riparian areas.
Rex – I’d love to read that research if you could ever track down an author or other info. Sounds like ecology of fear related to cattle, which I’ve not heard about before. Very cool.
This link lists some of the researchers involved Did not find the study.
The comment on cattle time in riparian areas refers to both pre predator and post predator influence because the data showed where the gps collared cows were every 5 minutes. Relative to your comments of ecology of fear, they did observe changes in grazing behavior that resulted in lighter calves.
Very nice article and equally great comments. I appreciate the prairiebotinist noting the importance of disturbances. Since I am in the driftless region of Wisconsin and have tall grass prairies I wonder what the difference might be, if any, to those short grass sites.
Jerry – it’s a great question. My understanding from talking with smarter people than me is that shortgrass prairies (western Nebraska, Dakotas, and west) have higher quality winter forage for bison (and cattle) because those grass species cure out better – maintain forage quality when they’re dormant – than eastern tallgrass species. That surely had an impact on the historic range of bison, or more accurately, the historic heart of the range of bison. On the other hand, I often advocate for the idea that disturbance regimes and objectives for them should be designed for today’s world and challenges, not based on history. Today’s prairies are very different than those of several hundred years ago, so we shouldn’t try to use the exact same disturbance regimes as they (might have) received historically to meet today’s challenges.
Good post Chris– thanks.
Chris, one thing I didn’t see you comment on in the bison vs cattle discussion aside from grazing patterns was potential differences in microbiota, insects and even birds that associate with cattle vs bison. For example, is cattle dung equivalent to bison dung in terms of the critters that use it? Have you noticed differences in the insects or birds that associate with bison vs cattle? Just curious.
I don’t know anything about the microbiota or insects/birds that use bison vs. cattle dung. It might have been studied, but I’ve not seen the research. I think a bigger issue is that of the use of deworming medicines in cattle that can persist in the manure and cause big problems for dung beetles. That’s starting to get more attention now and ranchers are looking for alternatives that are less harmful. Beyond that, I just don’t know.
Hadn’t heard about the effect of deworming medicines on dung beetles. Makes sense though…any insecticide used to maintain livestock health is likely to be passed in some form to the environment with potential off-target effects. Thanks for the info!
In Africa I did not de-worm my herd of native cattle, but they were herded through different parts of the ranch in a rotation that ensured we did not re graze the same portion of veld within the period that most worm eggs would still be viable. The dung beetles and other invertebrates quickly broke down the dung and consumed worm eggs. Maintaining a healthy wildlife population also helped by spreading the species of graziers so breaking cycles of species specific parasites when the eggs are consumed by non susceptible species.
Very thoughtful write up. I appreciate it when someone takes the time to write a more complete opinion piece rather than a 200 word rant with no rationale or cogent examples to back it up. A balanced view certainly seem like the best way for the prairies to be managed for commerce as well as for public enjoyment and the preservation of biodiversity. Here in Montana we are working towards a very large population of free roaming bison (10,000 plus) surrounded by more than half a million head of commercial cattle. http://www.americanprairie.org/ We have also just launched a beef company. http://wildskybeef.org/ We think it can all work together just fine. We would enjoy hosting you for a visit sometime and learning more from your experiences and studies. Thanks again for the thoughtful post. Sean Gerrity President APR / National Geographic Fellow
Excellent job, Chris, and the comments have been great. My compliments to readers, as well. As you know, this has been a heated debate here in Missouri.
One of my most vivid memories of bison vs. cattle came on a visit to Konza whereTowne took a colleague to one of his bison-cattle studies. This study was yearling steers and 2 yr. old bison, comparable animal unit classes. Study pastures were both all-burned, a common practice. With all animals out of site, Gene asked us, as he commonly did first-time visitors, which we thought was the bison pasture and which was the cattle pasture. We pointed to the one on the left as being the cattle pasture because of a large severely degraded area fully of cheat and weedy forbs. The one on the right was lush with grass and prairie forbs. “That’s the answer I always get,” said Gene, but the degraded one was the bison pasture. With all-burned pastures cattle typically graze uniformly except for mineral tubs, water, and shade while bison develop ‘camps’ on which they spend most of their non-foraging hours. The two diets in such situations usually show the greatest differences. Thus when the two species are treated with the same traditional animal husbandry practices, they behave differently and their diets are different.
Another social differences because of how we manage the animals. Cattle calves are removed from their mothers before they are a year old. Some daughters may be returned to the herd after over a year’s absence. In nature, bison mothers who wean their calves, bull calves form young bachelor groups while daughters remain with mothers, grandmothers, great grandmothers, etc. Thus herds are not a large conglomerated masses but spatially separated maternal groups. Older bulls may be solitary or loose groups. If cattle had the opportunity, they would probably behave similarly and this too would affect foraging.
Just hitting the “like” button on this comment.
Chris, we have raised bison for 20 years and our observation is there are big differences between cattle and bison. While the use of water is one obvious difference (amount of water used, frequency of visiting water sources and time spent at water sources), there are many other significant differences that have ecological ramifications. They are different species, and domestication of cattle certainly amplifies these differences. Your article, however, misses the main difference between bison and cattle with respect to prairie conservation. We can get quality meat from bison living yearlong in a grassland environment, and there is absolutely no need to plow up prairie to grow grain to feed to animals in feedlots. Your use of cattle as a management tool at your prairie preserve only perpetuates the problem of agricultural conversion of grasslands. Unfortunately, most bison raised in the US (and this includes public and NGO herds) are treated as livestock and about 95% of the bison calves are sent to feedlots – not much ecological gain there. With respect to your economic argument for grazing cattle versus bison at your prairie preserve, it does not track with our experience. We have only a 4-strand barbwire fence (deer, elk, moose, black bear, mountain lions and wolves all move freely across our property). We do not have any expensive corrals or handling equipment. In 20 years, we have never herded or tightly confined bison. Our neighbor leases her property at market value ($22/AUM) to cattle grazing. We have only half as much land, but our gross income is 20 times more than she receives. We have never put one animal in a feedlot and we have a 2 year waiting list for people wanting meat.
As someone that produced cattle on nothing but grass in the past (albeit on probably greener pastures in Iowa), I strongly disagree with the idea that cattle can’t produce good meat on grass…maybe that is just more difficult on marginal lands. One thing I could do to ensure that my pastures were healthy and that my growth rates were robust was move cattle among small paddocks every 3-4 days using nothing but a single electrified wire. I don’t see that happening with bison.
While several strains of established commercial cattle have been selected for foraging ability in recent years, there are still naïve strains of Angus and Hereford that were never developed for grain finishing, a further trend in recent years has been to use African Sanga (heat tolerant Taurus) genetics pure, crossed or composite to bring back rumen volume and ability to digest poor quality forages, while still producing meat of similar quality to British breeds. Their ability to graze several days without watering, as well as their lower water volume intake/lbs body mass compared to “improved” breeds makes them eminently suitable for high density grazing on native grasslands.
When the sandhill short grass prairies of the Nebraska Panhandle and Northeast Colorado were settled, there were large areas of active unvegetated sand dunes known as blow-outs that were finally revegetated in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Is it likely that these areas were the result of bison herds following the year after large naturally occurring prairie fires and over grazing the tender grass with weakened root systems?
Lou – I can’t say for sure, but I doubt that bison grazing had as much impact as did drought. I wonder if the droughts in the 30’s and 40’s got them moving and it took a while to settle back down? I don’t think impacts from bison (which would have been gone for an awful long time prior to the 1960’s) would have lasted long enough to be responsible. But I don’t know…
I know from oral family history talking to my grandparents who were homesteaders or children of homesteaders that the blowouts which covered several sections in places were already established in the 1910’s. As you know, once sand dunes become active it is very difficult for vegetation to be re-established on them. As a child of the sandhills, even though I am in my late 60’s, I appreciate your candor and careful observations of the ecology of the prairies.
Chris and Lou,
I have previously discussed this situation with Pat Reece, range ecologist.
He believes that prairie fire was a significant factor. On a day like today, in recent years there have been fires that burned tens of thousands of acres in an afternoon, even with control attempted. The result is a catastrophic reduction in forage availability. Bison in the area would have nibbled off all the tender new shoots. If the peat in a wet meadow did not burn and the bison camped there, the flies would have pushed them up onto the hills. They would also have climbed the hills to cool in the summer breeze. High stock density and pasture rotations are tools, not guarantors for plant vigor and prairie ecology.
Very informative. I’ve always looked at cow vs. bison from a different perspective, how cattle drink up an extreme amount of water, and eat a large amount of feed, but don’t yield a good proportional amount of meat, whereas the yield ratio is better with bison.
Actually it is the other way around. Cattle are harvest ready in half the time, even with grass finishing systems. Turner Ranches have tried to improve bison acceptance on the plate by corn fattening them The feed conversion ratio was half as efficient as cattle. It took twice as much feed to gain one pound ad the required time on feed was three times as long.
Cattle have had the benefit of selective breeding and diet research. Under the Texas cattle drive system, cattle were generally 3 years old. In the 1950’s, two year old fat cattle were the news. Now, calf fats are 13 months old with a feed conversion rate about 2/3 of the 1950/s.
The same might be possible for bison, but the prospect of working and weighing them is so intimidating that nobody has started the research or selective breeding.
All you have to do is look across the western third of our country, those semi-arid and arid lands, to understand why many conservationists think “cattle bad”. When financial returns override ecological realities, the outcomes often are sad.
Great post and string of informational comments, Chris and commenters.
I like that I learn so much here!
The fact that there are not enough Bison and will not be for generations to come, to re – populate the grasslands, means we have to use cattle to maintain the health of the grasslands to the benefit of the whole environment (holistic management) While the management system needs to be tailored for the specific ecosystem, the genetics do as well. Two sources of genetics for breeding tailored composites for more efficient use of the grazing, and reduce water dependency would be Beefalo and African Sanga cattle.
I found this one of the most interesting and most educational posts I have read on this site in the couple of years I’ve been following it. Thank you very much! I learned “stuff” here about both bison and cattle that I’d not previously known. That is always a good thing.
Long-time reader, first-time commenter here.
I think the utilization of grazing has its place on low-quality or restoration sites. I do not think it has any place on the few high-quality prairie remnants that still exist.
Do you have any input on the (following) points made about patch-burn-grazing by The Nature Conservancy – Missouri in 2011? Do some of these statements not apply to your particular region? Or has research in the past 3 years changed the context of some of them?
“1. Grazing-induced structural manipulations should be promoted as essential for long-term viability of grassland bird populations and other area-dependent grassland wildlife, and efforts to both work with private producers and to implement this on non-high quality public grasslands should be intensified.
2. There should be explicit recognition of the fact that grassland birds and similar scale-dependent conservation targets cannot be sustained through the existing suite of high-quality prairies remaining in Missouri, and that grassland bird conservation is largely a scale issue that must incorporate private lands.
3. Grazing or other manipulations with high uncertainty levels implemented in Prairie Natural Areas and analogous high quality prairies should be accompanied by disciplined, repeatable, dispassionate monitoring protocols (not necessarily or in many cases even appropriately configured as research) that document at an organismal level the degree to which the most sensitive, least replaceable elements of the system are being sustained. These data should be available to provide adaptive management feedback on an ongoing basis.
4. Decision making should include input from vegetation ecology, aquatic, wildlife, conservation biology, and biodiversity (across multiple organismal groups, but requisitely vascular plant and invertebrate) perspectives.
5. Decision points should be prioritized from the dual standpoints of priority (Heritage G-ranks are a good starting point) and irreplacability (i.e., if lost, potential for reintroduction/restoration).
6. If there are potential negative ecosystem impacts to a planned management protocol, high quality natural communities should be used only if there is no possibility of similar results being attained on lower quality examples or restored lands.
7. The only management decision filter for designated Natural Areas or analogous high quality grasslands should be whether a proposed activity will enhance the viability or abate critical threats to the organismal diversity of that natural area. Consideration of goals for area- dependent organisms and systems whose area exceeds that natural area context are relevant but must be secondary (and may be more appropriately addressed off site and/or on a larger scale – see #2 above).
8. Management protocols for high quality habitats should be designed solely from an ecological approach, and never with alterations designed to make them more acceptable to private producers, or increase their demonstration potential for private landowners. Although demonstrations sites are an important tool, there are ample less unique lands available for that role.
9. In habitats with remnant natural quality, activities such as grazing should be initially implemented at the most conservative levels and shortest duration necessary to achieve desired conditions, with ongoing monitoring.” (The Nature Conservancy – Missouri, 2011)
Hi Brett. I really appreciate your comment and questions.
To your first comment about where grazing is appropriate: I have a couple thoughts about that. First, my ideas about whether or not grazing is appropriate on high quality remnant prairies depends a lot on where they are geographically and how large they are. For the most part, I don’t think it makes much sense to graze eastern tallgrass prairie remnants that are small (less than 80 acres). On the other hand, management should be based on objectives, so if there are objectives that grazing can help meet – even in small prairies – it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. Second, some of the “best quality” remnant tallgrass prairies in western Missouri have old livestock ponds on them, which implies they have a history of agricultural grazing history, but have apparently survived/recovered sufficiently to retain that classification as “best quality”. I think it’s completely understandable to be skeptical of grazing when most cattle grazing in eastern prairie states consists of chronically high stocking rates and is often combined with broadcast herbicide use and other strategies that are harmful to prairie communities. On the other hand, there is ample evidence that most prairie plant communities are resilient to periodic grazing (especially when allowed sufficient rest). We have a TON yet to learn about this topic, however.
As to the 9 points from 2011. I am familiar with those, and largely agree with them. My understanding is that the author of those has moderated his stance on several of them, and on his overall view of patch-burn grazing in Missouri since 2011. Much of that is based on the recovery shown by plant communities during and after the implementation of patch-burn grazing – which largely supported my earlier point about resilience. That said, MDC has worked hard to learn from their initial trials of patch-burn grazing, including the development of a much more robust set of monitoring/evalution protocols that will be used to look at plant community response going forward. Grazing Natural Areas in Missouri has been and still is a very touchy issue, and I have no desire to wade very far into that discussion because I’m not an expert on those sites. I will just say this: I very much respect the MDC staff I know who are involved in implementing and evaluating patch-burn grazing, and I believe they have good intentions. I know they have worked very hard to ensure that their work going forward is as transparent and well-tested as possible. Responding to each of the 9 points would be a several blog posts-worth of writing, so I won’t do that here.
Overall, grazing in prairies is something we continue to learn about. There are cultural issues that cloud our perceptions of grazing, depending upon whether we live in ranching areas or not, and upon whether we’ve seen effective conservation grazing or not. Grazing certainly doesn’t make sense in all situations, but neither is it inherently bad for prairies – even high quality tallgrass remnants. There are some really important habitat qualities that can be created through grazing that we haven’t been able to replicate with other management strategies (e.g., short-cropped grass with tall forbs). If we can create that kind of habitat and increase the viability of invertebrate, reptile/amphibian, and bird populations (among others) that require it – without causing unacceptable damage to plant communities – I think we need to explore that. Whether we can do that or not is still up for debate, and the answer will depend upon many factors. LOTS to figure out still.
Anyway, thanks for the great response. Sorry I couldn’t do it justice with a longer reply here. I will continue to explore the issue in the blog, however, so stay tuned – and please keep asking questions and providing input.
Thanks so much for the reply! I didn’t expect each point to be directly addressed, as that would be lengthy indeed.
I’m a sophomore in college and am pretty much learning this subject material on my own for now. The issues outlined in the 9 points were very thought provoking to me, and I figured you would have some valuable insight.
Maybe I’ll get to contribute to some of that much-needed research in the future!
Brett – you’re very welcome. We could sure use your help, so I hope to see you out on the prairies sometime! Good luck with your college career.
The good ‘ol Missouri PBG kerfuffle pays us another visit. One thing that struck me when reading the nine points (rereading, actually – I read them when they were first produced in 2011) is that I suspect no prairie management tool or technique (fire, haying, grazing, rest, seed collecting, woody plant control, etc.) has ever been subjected to such an extensive list of suggested prerequisites. And if they were, I suspect none would completely satisfy all of the prerequisites. That’s not to say that taken as a whole they aren’t a good way to approach natural area management, a good philosophical basis from which to proceed and perhaps to strive for. But they also strike me as a somewhat ideological purity test that may not be completely translatable to the real world.
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Excellent article. I searched for feed conversion ratios for both animals and got a lot more. Excellent writing, very balanced and informative. I’ve been a farmer and rancher for many years and this kind of authority is harder and harder to find.
My question of the two is which one fattens up faster for market sale. Of the two, which one will be ready for selling to become a dinner on someone’s dinner plate?
I was doing some research for a program about prairie ecosystems I am developing for school programming at our nature center here in northern Illinois, and while looking for info about the bison vs cattle issue, I came across this article. Wow – completely changed what I thought I remembered from YEARS ago (which was that bison are good, cattle bad). I seem to recall that part of the argument had to do with hoof physiology: bison hooves were considered softer (?) and cattle hooves sharper (?), which resulted in different impacts not only on plants, but also on the soil/ground? Soil compaction, erosion…those were also part of what I was remembering. Am I remembering wrong, or has research disproven these concerns?
Either way, fascinating article and I will be including it in the information I give out to our volunteer educators.
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