When most people think of grass fed beef, they picture cattle grazing on lush green grass. In many parts of the country that is quite true, but here in Arizona, the “grass” picture is much more diverse! A better description would be forage, which is defined as grasses, forbs, browse and cereal grains in the pre-grain state. In Arizona, cattle utilize 98% of the land in agriculture production, while crops account for only 2%. Cattle are able to graze on land that would be impossible to farm due to the rugged nature of the terrain, lack of water and inaccessibility of the land. Some of the native plants cattle eat include gramma grass, side oats, blue stem, switch grass, winter fat, oak brush, chaparral, prickly pear cactus, bunchgrass, willows, sacaton, rabbitbrush, squirrel tail, cheat grass, feather finger, sprangletop, muhly and others.
Plants contain cellulose, a polysaccharide, which is the most abundant organic compound on earth. Humans cannot digest cellulose; it passes through the digestive system unchanged. Cattle are able to digest the plant cellulose and turn it into a protein that humans can eat and digest.
Grazing cattle, especially on public and vacant lands, help to clean up the vegetation and overgrowth thereby reducing fire hazard and the need for prescribed burning. With careful rotation, the grazed grasses and browse grow back more tender providing better feed for the native wildlife. Cattle also help keep waterways clear of vegetative overgrowth, so when the rains do come the water can flow through the washes and arroyos. Careful grazing of riparian areas can keep the vegetation from choking out the water channel. Cattle can also improve soil quality with their manure and aeration provided by their hoof prints.
Cattlemen must carefully balance the number of cattle stocked on a pasture with the available forage. They then make adjustments by changing the number of cattle or the time spent on a pasture, depending on the regrowth of the plants. Good cattlemen do not overgraze their pastures; if they kill off the good forages by overgrazing, the plants will not recover to be grazed again. Occasionally, one might see parts of a pasture with higher traffic evidence due to the location of the water source. These are called sacrifice areas, unavoidably overgrazed to obtain efficient overall use of the managed area.