Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Horse v. Cow

There are a lot of controversies surrounding cattle grazing on public lands.  There seems to be even more controversy and upset when horses are brought into the debate.  This is compounded when the activists are involved who strive to protect the free-roaming horses’ right to exist without federal intervention.  Wild horse activists are angered by the high numbers of cattle in comparison to horses.  Appropriate management levels for herd management areas should be increased, while numbers of cattle on the range should be decreased.  These are some common arguments I hear when there is upset surrounding horse gathers.  I am writing this to provide some data that might give some insight as to why more cattle can graze in an area than horses.

In an article I recently read, The Nutritional Basis for Food Selection by Ungulates, it was stated that cows and horses have different digestive systems.  They diverged from common ancestors into two families known as Artiodactyla and Perissodactyla – ruminant and cecal digesters.  Fermentation in the cecum and the rumen is similar.  However, horses are only 70% as efficient as cows at digestion.  This is because cattle regurgitate and chew partially digested food as “cud,” repeatedly.  Food is ground into smaller particle sizes.  Another reason cattle are more efficient is because the food they intake is digested by microbes before it enters the true stomach.  However, for these same facts, cows are less efficient at digesting fibrous plants.  Cecal digesters – horses – are not constrained by this.  Horses can be less selective in their forage, which gives them an up on ruminants in areas where quality forage is lacking.  However, since they are less efficient at digestion than ruminants, horses eat more than cows (Hanley, 1982).

This report explains why cattle are allotted more AUMs (animal unit month) than horses.  Horses, due to their inefficient digestive system, must eat more than a cow.  A study conducted in Europe on wetlands also confirmed that horses ate more than cattle.  If it is true that horses forage more in a highly mesic setting, than I hypothesize that it can also be true in a less mesic landscape where grasses are less nutritious.  (I have not seen any studies done on North American arid or semi-arid grasslands.  If anyone knows of any, shoot them my way!)

Catherine Menard and her research team wrote a paper in 2002 to describe the feeding niches of horses and cows in a European wetland.  They also used a complimentary site in France, where cattle and horse grazing is a conservation strategy.  Their study found that, like Hanley stated, horses ate more than cattle.  In addition, Menard et al. (2002) stated that horses foraged 50% longer than cattle and in one month consumed 63% more.

Both animals consumed less vegetation in spring and summer, and more in fall and winter due to increased energy needs

Cattle were often excluded from grazing sites with shorter grasses.  Due to the fact that horses have two front incisors, they can graze on grasses that are closer to the ground.  Cattle do not have front incisors, so they are restricted to taller grasses for their forage.   Menard et al. (2002) predicted that when this grazing system comes into equilibrium with vegetation, horses will out-compete cattle since their population increases at a higher rate.  They also stated that cattle should only persist in grasslands if there is adequate broad-leaf forage available that is unavailable to horses, or unless horses are highly predated upon.  Otherwise, there will not be enough forage for cows.

Now, linking this to our ranges where cattle and horses graze on the same landscape, I find that several things are relevant from these two papers.  First, horses consume more than cattle due to their different digestive system.  Two, cattle lack front incisors and cannot graze on short grasses.  Horses can.  Therefore, it makes sense to me that horses are allotted less AUMs than cows, especially knowing that horses are on the range year-round, while cattle are only inhabitants for part of the year, usually spring and summer months when energy requirements are not as high.  Thinking of Menard's suggestion, if cattle are to persist in an ecosystem with horses, the horses must be heavily predated upon.  In our rangelands, the BLM is that predating force to allow enough forage for cattle (as the BLM is mandated through the Federal Lands Policy Management Act) and wildlife.

Hanley, Thomas A. (1982). The Nutritional Basis for Food Selection by Ungulates. Journal of Range Management (35)2. 146-151.


  1. Thanks for the post on ruminant versus non-ruminant digestion and the reason for cattle being granted more AUMs on the range. This is something that I like to stump about, especially when paired with the knowledge that the BLM was originally the Grazing Service, so of course the rangeland that's not tied up in preserves or private ownership is historically grazing land (hello, nobody wanted it, so someone had to use it for something!) Thanks for bearing with me as your big fan, you just say so many things that need to be said about this problem!

  2. That's really interesting, it does make sense that horses eat more. I'm glad to know the reason for the difference in AUMs. I'd always assumed it was because the cattle had value. Has anyone ever done a survey on the benefits of horse and cow poop? not being silly, just realizing that everything has a purpose. Do cattle reproduce at a slower rate than horses? Cattle often have twins, and have a calf every year. Guess I like asking questions...Its really interesting to read your blog, I just found it today.

  3. I believe, just through observation, there has been folks speculating about the differences in horse and cattle defecations. Due to these different digestive systems, horses don't digest the seeds. This has been activists way to say how good horses are because they spread grasses. However, it has been observed that cheatgrass spreads through horse poo piles.

    As for the growth rates of cows....their numbers on the range change as per the BLM or the ranch manager. The BLM tells the permit holder how many head of cattle he can run on the allotment. The ranch manager might run that full amount, or fewer depending on what he thinks of the range. So growth rates aren't an issue for cows. They are also easier to manage. If it looks like over-utilization is occurring or it's drying out, cows are the first to go.

    Thank you for your interest! I'm always happy to answer questions to the best of my knowledge!

  4. Good article, I work for the USFS as a Rangeland Management Specialist and this is a very well researched and written article that gets right to the point.

  5. ruminant = cow .... digest everything fully (seeds... etc)
    Non Ruminant = horse .... don't digest seeds completely .... therefore reseeding the lands on which they graze.

    Horses Versus Cattle: Benefits of Horses for the Environment

    While the BLM is concerned with avoiding grazing competition between wild horses and domestic cattle, there seems to be lack of attention toward addressing the impacts cattle are having on the environment. The ratio of cattle to wild horses on public lands is fifty to one. Wild horses are critical architects of the western ecosystem, so rather than wasting tax dollars funding roundups, if the BLM is really concerned with protecting public lands they should instead focus on protecting horses.

    To illustrate the benefits of the presence of the wild horse, let’s look at comparison to how horses affect their ecosystem versus cattle.

    1. Maintaining Grass

    While cattle do not have upper teeth and use their tongues to wrap around grass to pull it from the roots, horses only graze the tops of grass blades, allowing grasses to regrow in a healthier state.

    2. Improving Soil Quality
    Unlike cattle, horses are not ruminants and therefore, do not have four sections of their stomach. This means that their waste contains more nutrients. When horses defecate, they give back to the land through enhancing soil quality. Cattle operations often cause water pollution due to waste containing hormones, antibiotics, heavy metals, ammonia, and pathogens. Many animals depend on horse manure to help maintain soil moisture to prevent brush fires.

    3. Use of Water Resources
    While cattle enjoy chilling out by water sources, horses are respectful of their ecosystem. Instead of causing erosion and scaring away species diversity (like cattle do), horses tend to drink and move on, leaving minimal impact on stream habitats.

    4. Grazing Habits
    Since horses are travelers and cattle prefer to just hang out, horses do not exhaust grazing areas like cattle do. Horses are also picky about what they eat and avoid consuming pretty flowers, allowing wild flowers to survive. If a horse consumes seeds, they can still germinate after being passed and thus, horses act as important sources of dispersal for plant species.

    5. Lending a Hand to Other Species
    In cold climates, many animals will follow the path of horses in order to find access to food and water. The powerful hooves of a horse have the ability to break through ice, making streams once again potable for other animals. Furthermore, horses can make their way to grasses through deep snow, allowing other animals to also graze where horses have been.

    Grazing cattle, on the other hand, pose a threat to 14 percent of endangered animal species and 33 percent of plant species as they encroach further into their territory.