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Remember The R's For Resilient Ranches – Rate

Remember the R’s! Easy to remember grazing principles

One simple way to keep the best of the grazing principles in mind is to remember the R’s, that includes Rotate, Rest, and Recover, along with proper stocking Rates and maintaining healthy Root systems. In this blog post, we will discuss one of the R’s, Rate.

Match livestock numbers to available forage for higher profits

One of the basics—some would argue the most important basic for a profitable grazing operation—is using a livestock stocking rate that matches the available forage in a pasture. Stocking rate— animals per acre or animal liveweight per acre—is the number of animals on the entire grazing unit for a certain period of time.

Figuring stocking rates doesn’t have to be complex. You just need to recognize the capacity of the landscape to provide forage for the length of time you plan to graze, and how many animals will be grazing. It’s also important to be ready to adapt with weather conditions. As you plan stocking rates, recognize all animals are not equal, nor are all landscapes.

Estimate the landscape’s capacity

Go online to the NRCS Web Soil Survey, and in just a few clicks you can outline your land area, find the soil types, and get a rating for the pounds per acre that soil type could be expected to produce in a normal, favorable, or unfavorable (dry) year. Talk with NRCS. They can explain the differences in stocking rates, stock density, carrying capacity, and other grazing concepts, and they’ll help you develop an entire grazing management plan, if you request it, at no cost.

Calculate the stocking rate

Once you have an idea of your particular pasture’s ability to produce forage, you can calculate the stocking rate that pasture can support. The stocking rate is generally calculated in animal unit months per acre. An animal unit month is the amount of forage required for a 1,000-pound cow with calf up to weaning weight for one month. That cow and calf is an animal unit—a 1500-pound cow would be 1.5 animal units, 600-pound stockers are 0.6 animal units, and a sheep is about 0.2 animal units.

To calculate stocking rates, multiply total animal units by the length of your grazing season, and divide your acres of pasture by that figure. Example: You have 200 head of cows (200 animal units) x 6 months grazing season = 1,200 AUMs forage demand. 3,000 acres to meet that demand suggests that your land’s carrying capacity should be at least 0.4 AUMs/acre to supply adequate forage for a 6-month grazing season. Depending on your location and climate, that scenario may or may not be workable– an NRCS conservation planner or rangeland management specialist can help determine if you are working with realistic figures.

Boost stocking rates and soil health with rotations

Ranchers have long known that season-long continuous grazing on a pasture stocked too heavily will degrade the pasture, especially in a drought. A livestock performance simulation by South Dakota State University in 2018 showed, though, that multi-paddock grazing allows for much higher stocking rates without such serious degradation because grazing on any one pasture is for a short time, and adequate time is allowed for recovery before re-grazing.

The study shows that as stocking rates are increased, profitability of multiple paddock grazing in rotation— even with high costs to develop those systems— is significantly higher than from continuous grazing. Some ranchers have doubled stocking rates in 10 to 15 years by using temporary fencing and water with 2 to 3 day moves. They get a better look at their cows, the cows have new feed every few days, and their high density, low duration rotation offers more even grazing of all the plants in the pasture. In addition, that management approach develops plant diversity and feeds soil microbes, resulting in healthier soils that infiltrate rainfall, with more resiliency in a drought.

“We’ve gone from the original fifteen pastures to thirty pastures ranging from 25 to 40 acres. When we’re finished we’ll have over 60 pastures. We’ll have 50 miles of electric fence when we’re all set up. We’ve learned the optimum grazing time for us is three to five days, followed by 750 days of rest. We don’t go back in the rest of that grazing season, or the next year, and then that third year, we try to shift the season of use. It’s worked for us. An NRCS inventory in 2007 showed our upland fields were producing 400 to 600 pounds per acre per year. Now, those same fields are producing 2,100 to 2,800 pounds per acre per year.”

—Simone Wind Newell, SSD


Visit these “Growing Resilience Through Our Soils” information pages:

1. Podcast page for drought planning fact sheets, Q&As, news, podcasts and more.

2. Video page to watch videos of other ranchers’ journeys toward improved rangeland/pasture.

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