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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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NMSU Studies Cattle and Elk Grazing Patterns on Valles Caldera

VALLES CALDERA--The Valles Caldera National Preserve's board of trustees believes state-of-the-art management techniques will allow cattle and elk to continue to graze on the preserve's meadows and woodlands without affecting its beauty and ecological health.

Yearling replacement heifers graze in an upland, woody area on the Valles Caldera National Preserve. Ranch hands placed a molasses-based feed supplement in this area to lure cattle away from riparian zones as part of an NMSU study of grazing management techniques. (10/14/2003) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

To assist, New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service is testing innovative management methods on the Valles Caldera that will help the board design a long-term grazing strategy and demonstrate efficient, environmentally friendly practices for ranchers in northern New Mexico.

"The challenge is to influence cattle and elk behavior patterns to avoid overgrazing in riparian zones," said Manny Encinias, an Extension natural resources specialist who is directing the research. "We want to provide useful information that will help the Valles Caldera board as well as producers throughout the area manage their grazing programs effectively."

Livestock grazed the Valles Caldera--an 89,000-acre area in the Jemez Mountains that the federal government purchased in 2000--for more than a century as a private ranch, with up to 6,000 head of cattle in recent years. Under government ownership, the newly formed preserve is now a multiuse public park that will include outdoor recreation but still continue to operate as a "working ranch," said Palemon Martinez, a member of the board of trustees and chairman of the grazing committee.

The board must determine the Valles Caldera's livestock capacity, but it already approved an interim grazing plan that allows up to 2,000 head of cattle per year, Martinez said. This year, 42 producers placed nearly 600 head in heifer replacement and cow/calf grazing programs on the preserve.

"By allowing only moderate grazing during this interim period, we can experiment with effective livestock management techniques to help us develop a long-term grazing program," Martinez said. "We're all interested in protecting riparian areas."

About 4,300 elk are also grazing the preserve, according to a 2002 Game and Fish Department survey, increasing the need for sustainable management techniques, Encinias said. "The problem is elk and cattle tend to concentrate on the riparian areas where they water," he said. "That's where the sweetest, most succulent forages are, and they love it."

Cattle also take the path of least resistance. "They're creatures of habit that seek out the most comfortable areas where it's easiest and most convenient to graze and water," Encinias said. "They won't go to steep ridges or sloped areas."

Getting cattle to graze more pasture in underused areas has multiple benefits. It helps preserve riparian zones while promoting new growth in areas that are currently overgrown with low quality forage. "If the cattle start eating the lower quality forage, it will grow back in as much more nutritious grass," Encinias said. "As that happens, the elk will start to follow the cattle into the new areas to graze."

Getting cattle to graze on more areas can extend the grazing season for ranchers with public land permits because government regulations require permitees to remove livestock from a pasture once 40 percent of the forage is eaten.

"The grazing season may be May to October, but if cattle eat 40 percent of the grass before fall even in just one area of the pasture, they have to be removed," Encinias said. "The rancher is forced to sell cattle earlier."

The challenge is enticing cattle and elk into underused meadows and woodlands, Encinias said. To do that, NMSU is distributing molasses-based feed supplements and salt blocks to lure cattle into targeted pastures. In some pastures, NMSU placed only feed supplements, in others just salt blocks, and in a few areas, both.

Valles Caldera ranch hands herd livestock into those areas in the late afternoon when cattle tend to graze the most, Encinias said. "Cattle do about 75 percent of their grazing from late afternoon to early morning, and they drink during the day," he said. "If we herd them to salt or feed supplement sites before they water, they'll just go back to the riparian areas."

Encinias and research assistants are carefully logging grazing patterns throughout the day to determine where cattle and elk concentrate, the time of day they graze or drink the most, and how they respond to herding and feed manipulation techniques, Encinias said. They've tagged all cattle to follow individual movements and behavior to see if gender, breed and age affect grazing and watering patterns, and they log findings onto a digital map of Valles Caldera.

The three-year study will include use of global positioning technology to accurately track cattle and elk movement, Encinias said.

"It's a matter of researching animal behavior and how to effectively manipulate that behavior for sustainable management of meadows and woodlands," he said. "If I'm a native New Mexican who grew up on beans, chile and tortillas, that affects how and where I choose to eat, but I can change those patterns. We want to push cattle to graze in places they might not go to on their own."