Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Resource heterogeneity and foraging behaviour of cattle across spatial scales

Santiago A Utsumi1, Carlos A Cangiano2, Julio R Galli3, Mary B McEachern4, Montague W Demment4 and Emilio A Laca4*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Animal and Rangeland Sciences, New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, NM 88003, USA

2 Estación Experimental Balcarce, Instituto Nacional de Tecnología Agropecuaria, 7620 Balcarce, Buenos Aires, Argentina

3 Facultad de Ciencias Agrarias, Universidad Nacional de Rosario, 2123 Zavalla, Santa Fe, Argentina

4 Department of Plant Sciences, University of California, Davis, CA 95616, USA

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BMC Ecology 2009, 9:9  doi:10.1186/1472-6785-9-9

Published: 24 April 2009



Understanding the mechanisms that influence grazing selectivity in patchy environments is vital to promote sustainable production and conservation of cultivated and natural grasslands. To better understand how patch size and spatial dynamics influence selectivity in cattle, we examined grazing selectivity under 9 different treatments by offering alfalfa and fescue in patches of 3 sizes spaced with 1, 4, and 8 m between patches along an alley. We hypothesized that (1) selectivity is driven by preference for the forage species that maximizes forage intake over feeding scales ranging from single bites to patches along grazing paths, (2) that increasing patch size enhances selectivity for the preferred species, and that (3) increasing distances between patches restricts selectivity because of the aggregation of scale-specific behaviours across foraging scales.


Cows preferred and selected alfalfa, the species that yielded greater short-term intake rates (P < 0.0001) and greater daily intake potential. Selectivity was not affected by patch arrangement, but it was scale dependent. Selectivity tended to emerge at the scale of feeding stations and became strongly significant at the bite scale, because of differences in bite mass between plant species. Greater distance between patches resulted in longer patch residence time and faster speed of travel but lower overall intake rate, consistent with maximization of intake rate. Larger patches resulted in greater residence time and higher intake rate.


We conclude that patch size and spacing affect components of intake rate and, to a lesser extent, the selectivity of livestock at lower hierarchies of the grazing process, particularly by enticing livestock to make more even use of the available species as patches are spaced further apart. Thus, modifications in the spatial pattern of plant patches along with reductions in the temporal and spatial allocation of grazing may offer opportunities to improve uniformity of grazing by livestock and help sustain biodiversity and stability of plant communities.