Field Notes: Cattle Grazing is AMAZING!

I arrive at my beautiful field site in the Sierra Foothills a couple days before it begins. I help the folks that work at the research station move my willing subjects, adult female cows, close to where I will be conducting my assessments. I’m reminded that moving cows (or really any field work involving animals) takes longer than you ever anticipate. I’m reminded to bring water wherever I go. I take a deep breath as it settles in that I am beginning summer fieldwork round 2 and the final year of my field research with my cows. Here. We. Go.

If you don’t live in the west, you may not have heard of rangelands. If you don’t work with cattle, sheep, sage grouse, native vegetation, or native trout, you probably don’t know about how rangelands are MAGICAL. Rangelands provide a staggering amount of benefits to ecosystems such as carbon sequestration, habitats for native vegetation and animal species, nutrient cycling, and pollination [1]. These ecosystem services historically were maintained by large grazing ungulates.  Similarly, cattle grazing on rangelands can maintain, uphold, or improve these services as long as grazing is managed to achieve uniform distribution of cows across the land [2]. Optimal distribution of cattle does not permit over-utilization of sensitive areas of the rangeland.

Like so many other animals [3,4], cattle display individual differences (IDs).  I am using the general term IDs because this phenomenon can be described in the animal behavior literature by many terms, such as personality, temperament, coping style, and behavioral syndromes [5]. And scientists LOVE to get into the weeds when it comes to terminology. IDs are a burgeoning topic in the field of animal behavior, allowing us to examine theoretically how variation in individuals come about (nature vs. nurture). We can also study why/how IDs are important for sustaining animal populations in changing environments, how they impact other animal populations and surrounding environments, and in livestock animals, how they can coincide with relevant production-related outcomes (e.g. fertility and breeding, weight gain, meat quality). 

IDs in cattle have been assessed before BUT there have been several limitations to these studies: 

A) Assessments involved infrastructure that is not always readily available to ranchers (hydraulic squeezes, large arenas, corrals that have opaque paneling).

B) Behaviors were heavily influenced by previous experience in the context in which they were tested. Context can be a big confound when trying to identify IDs among animals.

C) IDs had not been measured repeatedly over time. Examining consistent IDs in animals should involve repeated measures to ensure that it is not just a singular context or state that is influencing the animal’s behavior, but rather a trait inherent to the animal itself. 

D) IDs had been descriptive and/or applied to production traits in cattle, but the buck stopped just there. 

For my own research, I set out to address these knowledge gaps in the cattle behavior literature. 

When I began working in the animal behavior and cognition lab at UCD under Dr. Tina Horback, I studied pig personality. I soon realized how applicable this kind of research would be to beef cattle production, a very California rangeland-relevant topic. Bringing the knowledge gaps located in cattle ID literature and rangeland magic together, I study consistent individual differences in cattle behavior in relevant management contexts and how they relate to grazing patterns on rangelands. To do this, I put adult female cattle individually through a short series of novel behavior and cognition assessments repeatedly across days, strap ‘em up with GPS collars, and send them out to graze over the summer. Adult female cattle are those that make up the ‘grazing herd’ that remains relatively stable over time, which is why I have chosen this population of cattle to study. Meanwhile, I also sample the type and amount of vegetation on the rangeland at timepoints pre and post-grazing to monitor cattle utilization and maintenance of native plant species.  This is to determine if cows are grazing in the areas with dense, palatable, native plants or clumping in other areas of the range.


I’d like to shift the focus of this piece away from my exact field processes and data I collected and instead be a little vulnerable here for the sake of transparency and for research with animals. The first thing I’d like to communicate is that fieldwork/data collection/science is not perfect. It is not even close to perfect. Things go awry and I think one of the most crucial lessons you are gifted while collecting data for your PhD is how to anticipate, deal with, and overcome the obstacles that present themselves during your fieldwork. How you respond to challenges and pivot to problem solving defines a big part of who you are. This is something that I have personally had to work on through my PhD and has leaked into other facets of my life. It has been a valuable lesson to not catastrophize every mistake and bump in the road, but rather learn, evolve, and overcome. It is a difficult, but meaningful, process that requires patience and perseverance, and maybe some panic-stricken phone calls to your very supportive advisor…(thank you, Tina). Publications and recollections about fieldwork can make it sound like the researcher and animal subjects have done everything perfectly and as expected and everything was hunky dory. I’m mighty skeptical about these neat wrap-ups and I believe that there is some great power in telling the truth about mistakes that occur. Science should be honest and vulnerable to prevent future researchers from making the same mistakes that we suffer. In this way, science can advance much more quickly and efficiently. Be part of the revolution, share your mistakes!

I’ll go first, here is some evidence of fieldwork mishaps:

We all know how dry and hot California summers are, but an occasional rain on a random morning really threw us for a loop. Trying to keep the schedule consistent for repeatability of behavior was our priority, but rain droplets on our camera will make this day difficult to score behaviors…Sometimes the cows just disappear right into the droplets, how fun!
Sometimes ghosts like to cut the counterweight off of tripods causing them to randomly fall during experiments….

Another thing I’d like to communicate that I do not think is very widely discussed in animal research is that slightly stressing animals to see their responses, something that is difficult to avoid and necessary in quite a lot of animal research, is also stressful for humans. To do ID experiments, animals can be isolated from social mates to control for the influence of other individuals on the focal individual (i.e. the individual being observed). This can be mildly distressing for cattle because they are a herd species and are typically in social groups. Nobody wants to see an animal in distress. This is something I pondered a lot during my fieldwork and I do not have a resolution or satisfying conclusion. All I can say is remind yourself that what you are doing is important and ultimately for the greater good of animals and/or humans and/or the environment. You likely considered many other avenues and landed upon the least invasive and least amount of animal subjects necessary to conduct your research at the level of integrity required for your field (shout out to the IACUC review process for animal research). That’s all we can tell ourselves. I just want to be clear that I found this part difficult to deal with and went through a lot of mental anguish observing animals in even minimal distress. If anyone out there wants to start a support group about this, let me know!

WELL, I hope you’ve gotten a taste of my research and what’s going to come from it as well as a little transparency about science that I think is a necessary accompaniment to these pieces. No offense to all my fellow scientists, but you know you’re not perfect, let’s just be honest and share our mistakes and indulge in our goofy weird adventures not only to connect and laugh, but to make sure that science is advancing as fast as it can. Now the plan is to drown in data analysis until I dig myself back up to the surface with some results to share! Stay tuned!


[1] Maczko, K., Tanaka, J. A., Breckenridge, R., Hidinger, L., Heintz, H. T., Fox, W. E., … & McCollum, D. W. (2011). Rangeland ecosystem goods and services: values and evaluation of opportunities for ranchers and land managers. Rangelands33(5), 30-36.

[2] Svejcar, T., Boyd, C., Davies, K., Madsen, M., Bates, J., Sheley, R., … & Buckhouse, J. (2014). Western land managers will need all available tools for adapting to climate change, including grazing: a critique of Beschta et al. Environmental management53(6), 1035-1038.

[3] Dall, S. R., Houston, A. I., & McNamara, J. M. (2004). The behavioural ecology of personality: consistent individual differences from an adaptive perspective. Ecology letters7(8), 734-739.

[4] Réale, D., Reader, S. M., Sol, D., McDougall, P. T., & Dingemanse, N. J. (2007). Integrating animal temperament within ecology and evolution. Biological reviews82(2), 291-318.

[5] MacKay, J. R., & Haskell, M. J. (2015). Consistent individual behavioral variation: the difference between temperament, personality and behavioral syndromes. Animals5(3), 455-478.

Maggie Creamer is a PhD candidate in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group. She studies cattle grazing behavior under advisor Dr. Kristina Horback in the animal behavior and cognition lab at UC Davis (follow them on twitter: @animalmindsUCD)!) She is also part of UCD’s Center for Animal Welfare and is excited and passionate about improving animal lives and fighting climate change through sustainable agricultural practices.

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