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Are Cattle Compatible with Wildlife?

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Many landowners in Oklahoma and Texas are becoming increasingly interested in incorporating wildlife management into their cattle operations. Many variables can influence compatibility between wildlife and cattle, including, but not limited to, cattle stocking rate, species of wildlife, forage type, climate, etc.

The most important requirement for wildlife is habitat. Native rangeland with a good diversity, interspersion and structure of plants including native grasses, forbs, shrubs and trees is necessary for optimum wildlife habitat. These components provide critical needs such as food and cover for concealment, nesting and protection from weather. Additionally, these same grasses and forbs (and some woody plants) provide forage for cattle. Landowners managing properties consisting primarily of bermudagrass or other monocultures of introduced forages will not be able to maximize habitat or usable space for wildlife on their properties. Bermudagrass or other monocultures can increase cattle production if the landowner implements intensive management practices such as fertility and herbicide application, but, unless they implement extensive renovation practices targeted to increase plant diversity, they cannot optimize both cattle and wildlife production. Native rangeland is best suited for cattle and wildlife operations because it maximizes the amount of usable space on the property for each enterprise.

Plants providing cover for wildlife come in many forms. However, woody plants usually come to mind first when thinking of cover and reducing forage for cattle. Contrary to popular dogma, deer and quail do not need vast amounts of woody cover to survive and procreate. As little as 20 to 40 percent woody cover is sometimes all that is needed for quail or deer, provided it is well distributed, structurally adequate and comprised of a diversity of species. Likewise, the herbaceous plant community needs to be diverse. It can be dominated by grasses, but should also contain at least 15 to 25 percent forbs (typical of healthy rangeland) and have adequate bare ground for quail to maneuver and find food. Management tools that landowners can use to create these scenarios include stocking rate, grazing management plans, prescribed fire, rest and, depending on the initial condition of the property, dozing or chemical applications. Wholesale spraying of pastures to control forbs or brush is usually not good for wildlife and also eliminates legumes and other forbs that are beneficial to cattle.

Cattle stocking rate is arguably the second most important issue to consider. Rangelands produce a finite amount of forage each year, and production is dynamic between and within years, as influenced by weather. Therefore, stocking rate is dynamic and should be an important consideration when managing for wildlife and cattle. Most land managers tend to remember the good years of forage production and usually have cattle production goals that push the limits of forage production, resulting in stocking rates being set at or above rangeland carrying capacity. During droughts or growing seasons with below normal rainfall, this creates problems when managing cattle and wildlife. If a landowner truly wishes to manage for both cattle and wildlife, a light to moderate stocking rate should be maintained on native rangeland. This allows the landowner more grazing management flexibility to respond to adverse or favorable weather conditions, plan for prescribed fire and maintain a grazing plan that is compatible with the wildlife species of interest.

While it is true that cattle primarily eat grass and wildlife depend on grasses, forbs and woody plants for food and other habitat needs, there are dietary overlap and other competing factors between cattle and wildlife for preferred plants on native rangeland. Even at light to moderate stocking rates, cattle will eat forbs, most of which are also preferred by wildlife. However, this dietary overlap can be managed at acceptable levels through the establishment of proper seasonal or annual stocking rates and implementation of grazing and prescribed burning plans. Excessive cattle stocking rates can reduce grass structure and volume that wildlife need for nesting or cover purposes (not to mention the detrimental effects on cattle themselves), force cattle to be more direct competitors with wildlife for other plants and negatively influence overall habitat quality.

Cattle can be compatible with wildlife. However, native rangeland is the required plant community for wildlife. For native plant communities to remain healthy and provide habitat for wildlife and forage for cattle, they need to be managed with some form of disturbance such as fire or grazing. Understanding and knowing the frequency, timing and intensity of these disturbances is critical for success.