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Observing Beef Cattle Pastures and Pens

By Taylor Zahn

Walking cattle pastures and pens may or may not be a part of your everyday production, but there are many details you can learn by doing so. Creating a working and comfortable relationship between the producer and cattle will allow for more manageable tasks. A producer can achieve more manageable tasks and reduce emergencies by routinely observing beef cattle's natural behaviors and surroundings.

Beef cattle kept in pens and dry lots are observed more frequently than pasture cattle. Taking additional time to walk cattle pens will allow you to monitor many aspects that otherwise might be missed until it is too late.


Cattle manure can tell many stories about what is happening within the herd. Manure has three C's: Consistency, Content, and Color. These can expose the first of many red flags if caught early. Significant dips in feed intake, acidosis, coccidiosis, or dehydration are a few examples detected by observing fresh manure patties on the ground or watching cattle defecate.

Consistency, in general, will depend on water content, feed moisture, and feed retention in the animal. Fecal samples should indicate uniform digestion in a perfect world that refers to physical and chemical content. If calves are in the pen, loose stool or blood can often be seen on their back ends. Noticing these problems in their early stages in calves is crucial because they can quickly lead to dehydration and possibly death. Feed type influences fecal color. Cattle on pasture are likely to have dark green and brown manure, whereas cattle consuming a TMR containing large amounts of grain will be yellow-brown depending on the ration. Very loose stool may be gray in color. Manure observation is a valuable tool that can provide a larger picture of the animal's health.


Checking cattle areas means there is a water source nearby. Water is often considered the most essential nutrient and is particularly important during the summer months. Water intake also drives feed intake that converts to average daily gain. Ensuring a water tank is clean year-round and open in the winter is crucial. Typical problems that occur in the summer include manure, nitrates, or algae. All it takes is one animal to scratch its back end on the tank and defecate in it to contaminate the water. Cold winters may require the water source to be broke open one or more times a day, depending on if the tank is heated and the air temperature. Poor water quality can affect performance and reproduction, which can quickly go unnoticed. Besides water quality, one should check for leaks and electrical currents in the troughs.

Fence and Gates

It is crucial to keep cattle where we intend them to be. Walking the pen or pasture perimeter will help catch problems before you have injured and escaped cattle. Check to make sure that the hot wire is electrified or that deer have not broken and caused a short in the electric fence. Regularly doing this will limit your 1 AM phone calls from neighbors that your cattle are out. Routinely interacting with the cattle will also establish a better working relationship between the caregiver and the bovine by lowering their temperament score (scale of 1-5). Other things you may notice if you are checking the perimeter of the pasture for potential predators, fast-growing weeds or other pasture maintenance, unchained gates, and potentially dangerous junk or trash that has blown in.


As much as we like to keep things clean, trash still manages to make its presence where it should not be. Whether in the pasture or the feedstuff, beef cattle are curious and explore things with their mouth if given a chance. We often see loose wires, hay rake teeth, net wrap, and soda cans. If metal is a concern in the Total Mixed Ration (TMR) or hay, administering cow magnets can reduce the risk of hardware disease.


Beef cattle are routine and social animals. Regular interaction with them will help them to remain quiet while you, the producer, observe their everyday behaviors and habits. That way, it is easier to catch an animal expressing abnormal behavior quickly before the issue causing that abnormal behavior progresses to something more serious. Mild bloat, a slight limp, irritating insects, separation from the herd, or a favorite spot they enjoy scratching on are essential factors to note.


Walking beef cattle pens and pastures will be nothing short of beneficial to managing your operation. In a time like today, where the profit margins in the beef industry are continually being challenged, a simple practice can grow significant returns by identifying minor issues before they become more costly. Setting time aside to do so will allow you to increase your knowledge of your herd, but it can also be an excellent opportunity to drink your morning coffee or spend time with a family member. Taking the time to add this practice to your daily routine will, in the long term, save you time and money by preventing disasters and emergencies.

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