How many Acres per Cow?

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:

http://www.hpj.com/archives/2007/nov07/nov19/Grazingmanagementstrategies.cfm

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.

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About Gary Duncan

Gary has been active in the fence business for over 15 years. He also raises Highland cattle in a management intensive grazing system and was the first person to market the PasturePro post back in 2005. He enjoys discussing all things grazing and is the main contributor to the blog.
This entry was posted in Farm Visits, Grazing, Ruminations. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to How many Acres per Cow?

  1. avatar Ryan says:

    I am not sure how many acres per cow unit people use around here, but I figure on 6 ewes and their offspring (for the first 70 days) per acre. I buy in all my winter feed so I can make use of all the grass grown. I suppose if I was to have to feed them year round off the same number of acres the number would be down to 2 to 3 ewes per acre.

    • avatar Gary Duncan says:

      Auhh, the spring flush. Something we dream about in Febuary and something that calls for special grazing skills during this time of year. A race with the grass — as we try to cover as much pasture as posibble. Sometimes we win, sometimes the grass wins !

    • avatar Debra says:

      Ewes? Are you talking about sheep or cows?

      • avatar Steve Freeman says:

        Hi Debra–it can be a little confusing. When Ryan said “acres per cow unit” it would have been more accurate to say “acres per animal unit”–the standard measuring unit of 1000lbs. Cattleman/shepherds often use cows per acre or sheep per acres. The common ratio is 5-6 ewes will equal one cow in measured grazing.

  2. avatar JW says:

    Gary
    This is a good question! Lots of factors would go into this answer. I would say cow size(AU) will make a difference, continuous grazing vs MiG vs HD grazing, depth of topsoil, mindset,etc…. Most folks in the central region of Missouri on a continuous grazing basis could figure 3-4 acres/cow/year.
    I recently attended a Holistic Grazing course with Ian Mitchell Innes last month and I think he is running less than 1 acre/cow/year in South Africa! Oh and that was with about 15 inches of annual precipitation. That really got the wheels spinning in my mind. Last time I checked, Missouri receives on average 38 in/yr of precipitation. Over twice what he gets!
    Do you think this figure could be achieved in Missouri 1ac/cow/year? Correct me if I am wrong but, I believe Cody Holmes is already at the 1ac /cow/year mark(see Ranching on 3hrs a Day book). Do you think we could do better than 1ac/cow/year? This is what I will be shooting for. Some may scoff, that’s fine. I may come up short of this but I’ll keep trying. I figure if one of us can do it, we can all do it! I think I’d tell your friend to not be limited by his own mind. That is our biggest obstacle.
    JW

    • avatar Gary Duncan says:

      Thanks for your comments JW – and the great dialog. The factors that you mention are all part of the equation, with “mindset” probably at the top of my list. Choices of grasses / forages also play an important role, and this is something that we work on continually, over time – it doesnt happen over night. (the same applies to livestock genetics)
      Every farm and every climate has its own special needs, resources and benefits. But, a good mix of legumes, cool season grasses, native warm season grasses and some annuals can sure make the challenges easier to overcome. Then there are also the native “nuisance” forages. One man’s junk may be another man’s treasure.
      Yes I do think that the one to one ratio is acheivable and that there are several people doing it. And, I have also seen people acheive it, then revert back to less aggressive grazing patterns for their own reasons. I respect individual choices and reasons.
      For me, I think it needs to be fun, rewarding and profitable. Some people don’t need all three…I do.
      I consider Cody to be a personal friend, so I will see if I can persuade him to comment on this topic for us.
      Thanks again JW. I wish you well with your goals. And, even if you do come up short – you will probably have learned and profited more than enough to compensate for any shortfalls on the spreadsheets……

  3. avatar Steve says:

    In southern Missouri several of the grazing dairies are running more than 1 AU per acre. However, they will feed silage or hay when grass is short or quits growing, fertilize often, and in some cases irrigate. Also, by supplementing the cows, the AU per acre is skewed because not all of the animals TDN is coming from the acre. The grass management on these dairies is cutting edge and leaves little room for error or poor weather.

    I don’t know of any beef producers who run 1 AU [1000 lbs.] per acre year round in this area without either a lot of hay or supplement fed. If you are able to put and take during the growing and dormant seasons you might be able to reach that goal. Calving when grass is growing and keeping weaned calves over the winter to utilize the spring flush and grazing multi-species can also help increase stocking rate, but unless you are willing to either sell cattle frequently or buy hay and supplement when necessary, I think you would find it very difficult to reach 1 AU per acre year round in our area.

    We have found that we can often make more money at lower stocking rates because of the lower input costs and always having plenty of grass. We ran 1 au per 2.2 acres this past fall/winter and with our very dry fall still needed to feed hay for over 30 days, which was not part of our plan. Right now, because of the stockers growth our stocking rate is higher than that and with the rain this spring we could probably double our stocking rate for the next 45 days. But we look at year round stocking rates and realize how short a window is the spring flush of grass.

    An old successful stockman once gave me his advice on making money in the cattle business. He said “you can never have too much grass or too much cash, but you can be damn sure you can have too many cattle”. He didn’t mean not to run a lot of cows, just don’t run cows without having plenty of grass ahead of them and plenty growing behind them.

  4. avatar Linda Karsemeyer says:

    I wanted to know if 3 cows on about 12 acres of grass and forage would need to be supplemented. The grain and hay bill was 1400 for two years!

    • avatar Steve Freeman says:

      Hi Linda,

      Is that $700 per year or $1400 per year? If it’s $700 per year that would break down to $233 per cow per year. That’s not an unreasonable amount of supplement in many areas of the country when taking cows through winter. In Southern Missouri many cattleman plan to feed 4-5 round bales per cow for the winter period along with protein cubes just before and after calving.

      However, it is possible in many parts of the country to do much better than this. If all of your 12 acres is in good grass then you are stocking at a reasonable rate or most midwest states, but could be overstocked for arid western states. Are you rotating the cattle? Does grass grow 9-10 months in your part of the country?

      I need to know a little more about your operation before giving more than the standard “it depends”.

      Steve

  5. avatar Gary Preece says:

    What is the ratio of cattle per acre on 1.5 acres with 24/7/365 days a years grazing in central Kentucky, Scott County? What would be the effects on the soil/grasses? and would undesirable weeds invade the pasture?

    • avatar Steve Freeman says:

      Gary–on 1.5 acres I would suggest you look at raising calves, sheep or goats. It would be be difficult to keep a cow on that size acreage without spending quite a bit on supplementation. Herbivores are herd animals and with sheep you could raise 5-6 ewes and rotate them with electrified netting while will allow you to manage the 1.5 acre like it needs to be.

  6. avatar Tommy Jamison says:

    I have 2 small paddocks (1 acre each) and a 5 acre paddock. I want o run 3 head of cattle and one buffalo. How often should I rotate? I live in Scott county Kentucky. Thank you

    • avatar Steve Freeman says:

      Hi Tommy,

      I can’t answer that question with any certainty. You are running four head [4,000lbs.] on 7 acres. Without using portable fencing to make your paddocks smaller and more even in size it will be difficult to manage your grass. When I talk with new graziers I often boil it down to don’t leave the livestock on a pasture long enough for them to graze the regrowth until it has had time to recover. In the spring that means you need to move at least every third day. This keeps the livestock from eating the new fresh growth that the plant is producing after being bit off the first time. Obviously with only three paddocks you can’t achieve this goal. I would highly recommend looking into portable fencing to further sub-divide your paddocks systems. It usually takes at least 10 paddocks to
      properly manage your grazing system. With three portable reels full of poliwire and some step-in posts you can build almost an unlimited number of paddocks without spending a lot of money.

      Thanks,
      Steve

  7. avatar Bob Bowling says:

    I NEED HELP…. I am new to all of this, I live just north east of Louisville, Ky. Have about 6 1/2 ac. Would like to raise cattle for the spring, summer & fall months. Sell before winter? I do have more ac. that I can move them too, but it is low land and stays wet for days after a good rain…. How would I get started? Just looking for some food going into winter and maybe a little money also to help buy for the next year…. Also, I believe the grass I have is a thick bladed type…. I was told this did have cattle on it before… I know I have to clean it up.. what type of grass or weeds are bad for the cattle..

    Thank you for your help

    • avatar Steve Freeman says:

      Hi Bob,

      It’s always fun learning something new. I’m going to give you a bit of advice, but I think your best bet will probably be to talk with your county extension agent. The agent should be able to help you identify the grasses your growing [my hunch is it's tall fescue] give you some recommendations for stocking rates and tell you of any weeds that may harm your cattle, though I doubt this will be of much concern.

      Your idea for grazing through the growing season is a wise one. As long as you have good fences and water it’s hard to do too much wrong and is a great way to get started. My suggestion would probably be to start with 3-4 holstein steers. Holsteins are used to a little grain and are usually easy to handle using a grain bucket to get them to follow you anywhere.

  8. avatar Darryl Mueller says:

    This is a great topic. Looking to relocate in NW Arkansas, but we ended up on a fact finding trip to Montana. This whole idea of cows per acre was summed up so good when the 300 cow heard was moved from Montana to New Mexico and then Missouri. I live in Altamont Pass region of California dry land pasture 10 acres or more per cow and we get about the same rain fall as Montana and locals here would say 10 acres per cow? Just looked at a 1300 acre ranch in Laurel and 125 was the number of cows said to be there but it was empty, no cows. I think one most important factor is rain fall that must be taken into account. Hence my origional thought of good rain fall in Arkansas of 35 inches and some areas 50 inches then 2 quality of soil. There is good soil but you got to look for it. We used to call it potato ground when I lived in Eastern Pennsylvania, bucks county. An other crop that likes good soil is alfalfa. True any crop in the right soil, and moisture and heat will produce but it’s just is easyer if you have the water and soil to count on, climate will alway be a maker or killer but it’s a googbace to start.

    • avatar Steve Freeman says:

      Hi Darryl,

      Thanks for the input-you descriptions of different regions shows the difficulty in making generalizations about stocking rates. NW Arkansas is a great mama cow region as is our south central Missouri Ozarks. Plenty of grass and water and because of the topography no competition from cropland farmers.

  9. avatar JOHN JOHNSON says:

    I live in central Florida my question how many beef cow can u graz o 4 aces of good grass

  10. avatar Viviana says:

    Hi, I am currently in a beef production class. I am a freshman in college and I am new to all of this. Although, it does grab my attention and I want to learn as much as possible about all of this. I have to come up with a business plan and so far I don’t think it is going so well for me. I need help on finding prices for livestock. My plan is to be a seedstock producer but I am not sure what kind of equipment I may need. Please help if possible. Thanks!

  11. avatar Brandon Crunkilton says:

    Ten acres divided into ten sqaure paddocks. Only want to rotationally graze March – October/November in Central Ohio. Have a barn with feedlot for Winter and will use square and round bales. Was hoping to have a “herd” of ten cows with calves being born late October/early November and then sold in May after the grass rush of the spring. Is this possibly sustainable or am I putting too many au per acre?

    • avatar Kencove says:

      Brandon,
      A generally rule of thumb is that 1.5 -2 acres will feed a cow calf pair for 12 months. However, there are many variables that come into play; the size of the cows, type of forage, weather, etc. It will always be best to over estimate acres per head of cattle.
      Check out this article offered by Progressive Cattle for more details about balancing your animals with your forage.

  12. avatar Isaiah says:

    Hi, I have 160 acres fenced out into 5 sections of aprox 20 plus acres each with some fields left out for haying. I have 20 head of cows on a friends ranch I want to move onto my property next spring. Land is in eastern Montana, and when hayed last year aprox 130 acres were hayed producing 350 1600 lb. round bales. Is 20 pair of cows to much? Most ranchers in area run aprox 10 pair per 640 acres in large 1280 plus pastures.

    • avatar Lacy Weimer says:

      A lot of variables are involved in your question. Eastern Montana can be a brittle environment, which can vary a lot from northern to southern sections as well as from native grass open hill country to river bottoms.
      Some questions: Are you haying 130 of the 160 acres? Is there irrigation on the pasture or hay ground?
      What is your water source for the cattle and how far do they need to walk to water?
      I worked on a North Central Montana dry land ranch once and the norm was 35 to 40 acres per cow. I have some friends that used to ranch in Eastern Montana, and they concurred on the 35 to 40 acres per pair, on an average year. These numbers will vary from year to year depending on precipitation.
      Another factor is if the land has been overgrazed in the past. It takes a long time in the west to recover from overgrazing, if it ever does. If your neighbors are going by the 64 acres per pair, then there is probably a reason for that.
      The other question is: do you need or utilize the hay bales. Is grazing some hay ground an option for you?

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