Nutritional limitations of free-ranging cattle: the importance of habitat quality.

Published online
05 Mar 1997
Content type
Journal article
Journal title
Journal of Applied Ecology

Wallisdevries, M. F.

Publication language


Nutritional limitations of free-ranging cattle were examined in relation to variations in habitat quality, in the Netherlands. Twenty Meuse-Rhine-Yssel steers (average liveweight 315 kg) were allocated to 4 different treatments over 2 years (May 1989 to July 1991): year-round grazing on heathland with low soil fertility, year-round grazing on riverine grassland with high soil fertility, summer grazing on riverine grassland (April-November) and winter grazing on heathland (December-March, control), and year-round grazing in an area with combined heathland and riverine grassland. The nutritional budget for nitrogen, sodium, phosphorus and calcium was calculated by quantifying forage intake and quality. Energy intake was estimated from digestible organic matter intake. Cattle condition was measured by liveweight gain, body condition score, saliva samples, fat reserve estimation with the deuterium oxide method and rib bone analysis after slaughter. Forage intake and quality showed significant monthly variation. DM intake was lower for the steers in the combination treatment than for other treatments. Forage quality was significantly higher in riverine grassland than on heathland. ME intake per unit gain was higher on heathland than for the other treatments. The implied reduction in energy retention suggests impaired digestive efficiency. Nutrient balance was poorest on heathland, intermediate, but always positive in the control and combination treatments, and best in the riverine treatment. Requirements of heathland cattle were met approximately for N and Ca, but not for Na and P. As a consequence, heathland animals showed various signs of malnutrition including lower weight gain in summer and higher weight loss in winter, apparent deficiencies of Na and P, lower condition scores and fat reserves, and pica behaviour (geophagia, osteophagia and carnivory). The significance of differences in soil fertility is discussed with respect to the performance and survival of large herbivores in homogeneous or heterogeneous habitats.

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