U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Dot gov

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.


Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.


Main content area

Cattle Grazing Distribution Patterns Related to Topography Across Diverse Rangeland Ecosystems of North America

E.J. Raynor, S.P. Gersie, M.B. Stephenson, P.E. Clark, S.A. Spiegal, R.K. Boughton, D.W. Bailey, A. Cibils, B.W. Smith, J.D. Derner, R.E. Estell, R.M. Nielson, D.J. Augustine
Rangeland ecology & management 2021 v.75 pp. 91-103
adaptive management, arid lands, arid zones, autumn, beef cattle, cattle husbandry, decision making, ecosystems, feeding preferences, flooded conditions, floods, forage quality, grazing intensity, growing season, highlands, lowlands, pastures, rangelands, semiarid zones, stocking rate, subtropics, summer, topographic slope, water resources, North America
Livestock distribution in extensive rangelands of North America can present management challenges to land managers. Understanding the role of topography on livestock distribution, within and across diverse rangeland ecosystems, could provide land managers valuable information for adaptive management of livestock to address both conservation and production goals from these ecosystems. Here, we examine the influence of topography on grazing distribution unevenness and intensity of use of beef cattle in seven rangeland ecosystems spanning arid, semiarid, and subtropical environments. We focused on grazing distribution during the late growing season (summer and autumn) periods when topographic variation in rangelands is more coupled to low and nonuniform availability of high-quality forage. Pasture size and water sources strongly influence grazing distribution across ecosystems. High unevenness of grazing occurred in pastures with extensive distances to water, low stock density, and more rugged topography. Conversely, more uniform grazing distribution occurred in smaller, well-watered pastures that support higher stock density (animals per unit area) and gentler terrain. Comparison of two topographic indices, topographic wetness index and topographic position class index, in terms of their ability to predict cattle grazing distribution, revealed that categorical topographic position classes were more effective. For most arid and semiarid rangelands, livestock grazing distributions showed affinities for lowlands and flat plains compared with open slopes and uplands. In contrast to drier rangelands, livestock grazing distributions exhibited preference for upland and sloped areas of subtropical pastures, as low-lying areas with water-inundation likely curtailed selection. Across these diverse rangeland ecosystems of North America, results provide benchmark information on livestock grazing distribution to formulate improvements in adaptive management and decision making and incorporate technological advancements in precision livestock management to integrate abiotic environmental information with spatial movements of livestock and temporal vegetation dynamics.