Ranchers have traditionally used water and salt to move cattle from one place to another — to prevent overgrazing, for example. Now an Agricultural Research Service rangeland scientist has found that, while water is an effective tool for moving cattle, salt isn't as helpful as was once thought, at least on sagebrush steppe rangeland.

David C. Ganskopp tracked the movement of cattle on large western rangelands by putting Global Positioning System collars on them to determine their precise location. At the ARS Range and Meadow Forage Management Research Unit in Burns, Ore., Ganskopp observed that cattle were attracted to water nine times more often than they were to salt.

They were willing to travel farther to get to water, and whenever water and salt were separated, they altered their habits to remain close to water. Since water is required on nearly a daily basis by cattle, the animals will alter their distribution patterns to remain near dependable water sources.

According to Ganskopp, cows have the ability to learn and remember, thus knowing how to find water sources that they've previously visited. If producers selectively open and close gates to watering points on the range or move portable water tanks to unused points in the pasture, they can get the animals to occupy these under-grazed areas.

While the salt will likely not attract cattle for great distances, it is an excellent carrier for supplementing their diets with the many minerals needed to sustain animal gains and reproduction. For those reasons, salt should still be readily accessible to cattle.

Ganskopp is continuing analyses of his cattle data with geographic information system software to evaluate the effects on livestock distribution of topography, forage quantity and forage quality differences.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.