What do you get when you combine soft ground with cattle? Pugging, and chances are, lots of it.
Pugging is the term used to describe the holes that are left behind by cattle hooves when the ground is soft from heavy rain or spring melt. These holes and mounds are difficult to repair, and can take years to rejuvenate, so it's much better to have some management practices in place that will prevent pugging, rather than trying to find ways to fix the problem.
Why Does Pugging Occur?
I hate to be a thorn in the side, but pugging is primarily caused by mismanagement, regardless if it's a result of pure ignorance or just by accident. Often a person may not be realizing how heavy their cows really are nor how soft the ground can get when it's wet. When those to factors are combined, some really hard lessons get learned (I hope) after seeing how some part of the pasture becomes such a mud hole that it becomes next to impossible to drive a quad (4x4 ATV to some of you) through!
From a soil structure point of view however, pugging is a form of compaction. When soil is wet its ability to withstand any pressure from any form of treading action, be it tractor tires or cow hooves (or even from a person in their rubber boots), is compromised. The aggregate structure of the soil collapses under any significant weight, creating compaction where, when it dries up, instead of a nice structure for roots to be able to creep through down into the A, B, and C horizons or further, the soil structure ends up with a blocky or plated structure that is much more difficult for roots, particularly grasses, to get through. This can compromise forage stand productivity; it may also invite deep-rooting forbs like thistle to come in to literally help solve the compaction problem.
How Can It Be Prevented?
The best way to prevent pugging is to restrict access to the pasture (or even wetland area) for as long as necessary, until the ground dries up enough for the animals to go back on.
Designating a sacrifice paddock where cattle can be fed hay during their stay is something I highly recommend. This sacrifice lot will not stay grassy for long, but that's not an issue as it's a means to really help save your pastures.
A sacrifice paddock should be on a high piece of ground that's well-drained and will dry fairly quickly after the rain event has passed; basically where the animals aren't going to be standing in a lake after getting 2-inches or more of rain in one fell swoop (as this can lead to foot rot or founder), and the hay won't be sitting in water either. This sacrifice paddock should have some shelter to it as well, whether it be some trees, a wind-break panel fence, or any place where they can get out of the wind.
A sacrifice paddock doesn't have to be fancy or have a lot of investment put into it, even though an article such as this one that suggests putting in a cement or limestone feed pad (or something similar) for cows to stand on with a loafing shed, and constructing a surface and/or a sub-surface drainage system. As long as it's an area that your animals have shelter on and can be fed in without standing in a pond, you should be just fine.
An alternative solution to the sacrifice paddock is to move your animals as frequently as possible on pasture. Daily, twice-daily, or similar moves will help reduce the impact of the hooves of cattle because it discourages them from repeatedly visiting the area that is more prone to pugging, and causing more damage than they've already done. Setting up temporary electric fencing is a much easier move because it adds so much more flexibility with setting up necessary paddock sizes and shapes according to the landscape and where you do or don't want your animals to go, and in being able to remove the fencing soon after. While this is another blog post to write at another date, this frequent moving is a fail-safe means of protecting pastures from pugging, and adding some organic matter and manure to the soil that can't be done if animals are allowed to free-range over a much larger area for a longer period of time than merely 12 or 24 hours.
Can a Pugged Location Be Fixed?
It can be fixed, certainly, but as far as how quickly you need it to be fixed and the method you choose to fix it based on equipment, money, and time that is available is totally up to you. I would begin the consideration process by checking THIS article.
This is more of a "farmers/ranchers only" section where I share and expound on the various tips, tricks, and information on how to raise cows and cattle, from feeding and grazing to breeding, to handling and keeping them healthy. This is really for anyone who wants to raise cows, or is already doing so!
Range Nerd, Forage & Grazing Fanatic and a Bovine Enthusiast. A love for farming, and for the soil.