I received a text message from a friend the other day (from a far away land), asking what we figured, in Missouri, as an acceptable ratio of acres of pasture – required per cow (first off we dont figger in Missouri, we cipher & decipher). I hastily replied that from my own experiences, 2 acres per head on a very good year and 4 on a dry year in an intensive grazing system. Then after I hit the send button, I realized that was probably a pretty lousy answer. So, when I had a little time I did some web searches, made a few phone calls and re-affirmed rather quickly that there is NO definite answer to that question and the variables are staggering. This isn’t “new” news, but an interesting topic, none the less.
I remember working once for a farmer/rancher in North Central Montana, near the Canadian border. This area is mainly comprised of dry land wheat, with mixed in patches of native short-grass pastures. Cold in the winter and hot in the summer with wind every day. Up there, I recall that the ratio was around 40 acres per cow unit. These were very large pastures with very few cross fences. In fact, their individual pastures were much larger than most farms where I grew up. Annual precipitation was around 12” annually. Cattle walked literally miles to water.
Some other good friends of mine had moved 300 momma cows from Montana to Southern New Mexico (south of Carlsbad). There, they leased 43 sections of land for those 300 cows. Wow, that’s over 27,000 acres. That relates to over 90 acres per cow. They spent most of their daylight hours on horseback, moving cattle. From there, they moved those same 300 cows to a 1200 acre grass farm in the Ozarks of Missouri. After the transition, those cows think they are in heaven with 4 acres per cow. The local government boys tell them they are overstocked. But, I have watched their operation over the years and it is easy to see why they are successful. They are maximizing their resources and they literally live with their cattle.
Another set of new friends have made the transition from 20,000 acres to 1200 acres in northern Missouri. See http://www.pasturepro.com/blog/2010/06/a-trip-to-grady-ranch-in-gallatin-missouri/ for more information on their operation.
There are so many variables in trying to estimate the number of acres required per head that I really don’t think that there is an answer to the original question. Even amongst top notch grazing professionals there is a lot of variance. The management differences and goals of each individual spread over a very wide spectrum. Weather, forage types, annual precipitation and many factors come into play. There are: continuous, rotational, intensive, MiG, high density and now ultra high density grazing practices. Then you can also throw in supplemental feeding practices and the list goes on and on. Here is a good read about Grazing Management Strategies from Doug Rich of the High Plains Journal:
I think it is very interesting to see how thoughts & practices vary greatly across the country. I encourage you to comment to us about what your acres to head ratio is in your part of the country, as well as climatic conditions and any special grazing practices that you utilize. Please also include any comments on other types of livestock including sheep and goats. I am sure our readers would love to hear them.