Grazing and Stocking Density
From time to time, I have the opportunity to attend grazing field days at neighboring farms or grazing conferences put on by Penn State or Cornell University . And when it comes to the "round-table" or "open forum" time of the get together, I hear statements like "My Dad used to graze 100 cows on this pasture all season and now I run out after four months with only 90 cows. What's wrong with my pasture?" Often, there's nothing wrong with the pasture, the main problem is actually how we count the cows.
A hundred years ago, most cows were straight English, often easy-keeping Herefords that rarely weighed over 1,000 lbs. We have Registered Red Angus & BEEFALO that we have been breeding for a smaller frame size than the current industry standard. And from all we’ve heard over the last few years, SMALLER IS BETTER! The basic idea is to get back to the basics! As in what frame size/carcass size Cow’s & Heifers your ancestors used to have 50-60 years ago. They eat less, which means they’re more efficient when converting forages to meat.
IS BIGGER BETTER?
Today, it's not unusual to have 1,400-lb. cows or even larger with February calves weighing 300 lbs. when they start grazing. That's a big change, going from a 1,000-lb. cow with a 100-lb. calf 100 years ago, to a 1,400-lb. cow with a 300-lb. calf today. That's 1,100 lbs./pair vs. 1,700 lbs./pair. Cattle tend to eat 10-15 lbs. of green grass for every 100 lbs. of body weight. So, today's cow-calf pairs eat almost 50% more when they start grazing than the pairs of years ago ate.
To start planning your pastures or paddocks for optimal stocking rates, check aerial photos of your farm/ranch. If your farm has been in your family for a few generations, you can bet at some point there was an aerial photo taken. It's probably up in your attic! Make your paddocks large enough so that you can figure approx. 60% of the grass will be consumed by a cow-calf pair in 2 - 3 weeks. That relates to approx. 3 acres per pair or 6 acres a month. These numbers are optimal for the North/East part of the country. Obviously in Montana and the Dakota’s for example, there is less rainfall (around 12" annually), than here in Pennsylvania. Most importantly, talk to your neighboring farmers or local extension agent to find out what has been successful in your area. Allot of research continues to be done on "Intensive Rotational Grazing". There is plenty of info. out there, all you have to do is ask!
KEEP ‘EM OUTTA THERE!!
Most importantly when planning your pastures/paddocks be sure to EXCLUDE livestock from streams and stream banks and provide alternative watering facilities and stream crossings to reduce nutrient inputs, stream bank erosion, and sediment inputs. Research has shown that when cattle are fenced out of streams, there are significant reduction in fecal coliforms, total nitrogen, total phosphorus, and total solids in the streams. Also from the cattle’s standpoint, hoof health and udder health are generally better when they are kept from standing in water. The prior mentioned guidelines/recommendations are coming from the federal, state, and local level as per the NEW 246-page Chesapeake Bay Foundation Regulations Document released in March. These regulations primarily impact the North/East region of the country that is within the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. There are 20 implementation measures outlined in this document. At this time it is unclear how these specific measures will play out in Pennsylvania, but it is clear that more regulations are coming and they will impact everyone in the country when other watershed’s include these initial guidelines in there regulations. My advice would be that if you aren’t already implementing these environmental precautions in your grazing operation to start them now and work out the details ahead of time before your state or region starts putting them into legal practice and your left scrambling to conform to the rules being enforced.
When in doubt, your local extension office or NRCS will be helpful, no matter what your level of experience or knowledge, there is no substitute for getting advice from your successful neighbors and peers.