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Grazing and pasture management for cattle

Quick facts

  • Producers use grazing to help reduce feed costs and make unproductive cropland productive.
  • You should have a grazing plan to make sure you are as efficient as possible in using your grazing forage.
  • The different grazing systems include continuous, simple rotational and intensive rotational.
  • Rotational grazing is more productive than continuous grazing.
  • Overgrazing results in decreased pasture quality and productivity.
  • You should have a back-up plan for when things go wrong.

Benefits of grazing

Cost

The biggest cost in most, if not all, cattle production systems is feed. Many producers use grazing to reduce costs for their operations. Properly managed pasture-based systems use land efficiently and provide high production per acre.

Marginal land

Not all land can grow row crops. These pieces of land are usually described as marginal.  Grazing is a way to grow a crop (grass) on land that is not suitable for traditional row crops such as corn and beans. Cows can use the grass and make otherwise unproductive land productive.

Environment

Grazing benefits the land itself. Studies have shown the benefit of grazing as a tool for conserving wildlife habitat and keeping prairie healthy.

Incorporating cover crops into a cropping system has major benefits to the land such as decreased compaction, decreased soil erosion, and decreased run-off. These cover crops can be used as a valuable part of a grazing rotation.

The importance of having a grazing plan

Designing a grazing plan is the first step in your pasture management system. As you follow the planning process, the strengths and weaknesses of your current system will become apparent.

The grazing plan should include all the components of the grazing and pasture system and serve as a map for making management improvements. The amount of grass available is limited and having a plan allows for the full use of the resources available.

Recording and tracking the success of your plan is important because you can then make improvements for the next grazing season.

Map your grazing

You should draw a map or use mapping software to show the boundaries of the land that is available for grazing. Having a map of your system makes it easier to get started on a plan and makes the plan easier to adjust for different conditions from year to year.

  • Distinguish land that is owned from land that is rented. There are certain management practices that you can apply to your own land that you may not be able to do on rented land.
  • Determine the number of acres of the different land parcels and label these on the map. You can then see what is available and what opportunities you have to improve or better use the resources you have.
  • Mapping can show if there is additional land available that could be used for grazing.
    • Cropland that is next to pasture land may be better used by growing forages.
    • Cropland close to existing pastures is ideal for converting to grazing if pasture expansion is one of the farm goals.

Different grazing systems

Thumbnail of poster graphic depicting the pros and cons of continuous grazing, simple rotational grazing, and intensive rotational grazing. The graphic is split into thirds with the top third depicting a continuous grazing system, the middle third a simple rotational system, and the bottom third an intensive rotational system.

Grazing systems range from continuous grazing of one area over a long period of time to intensive rotational grazing on small areas for short periods of time.

  • Livestock systems that use continuous grazing of a pasture experience both overgrazing and under grazing of forages.
  • A rotational system provides an opportunity for forage plants to rest so that they may regrow more quickly.
  • The rotational system provides an opportunity to move livestock based on forage growth, promote better pasture forage utilization, and extend the grazing season.

The advantages and disadvantages of three grazing management systems are listed below.

Download the Cattle Grazing Management Systems poster.

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Pasture quality and productivity

Good pasture condition is critical to a successful grazing system. Pasture quality may vary greatly from one pasture area to another, but the trend over time should show the direction in which the pasture condition is moving.

Forage grass and legume species each have their own unique growth, persistence, and quality characteristics. Because they respond differently to soil conditions, weather patterns, fertility and grazing management, the plants that are currently growing in your pastures may be different from one area to another.

Evaluating the entire system is important to the success of your plan.

Determining and measuring pasture quality

  • First survey what is available. A walk through the pastures is necessary to gather this information.
  • The overall coverage and density of forage in your pastures can be rated as thin, average, or thick.
  • If the same people are evaluating the pastures every time, you can keep track of the trend.
  • Identify dominant species in each pasture and use your map to keep track of what you find. If you need help identifying different species contact your local Extension office or your local USDA service center.
  • For a relatively small cost, a forage sample you collect can be tested by your local forage lab. This information about protein, mineral content and more is incredibly valuable.

How to estimate pasture productivity (forage mass)

There are many methods for determining the productivity of a pasture. Several methods include the use of specialized equipment such as a rising plate meter, falling plate meter, infrared technology or even drones. The simplest methods are accurate and still provide important information. The unit used when determining pasture productivity is pounds of dry matter per acre (lbsDM/acre).

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Stocking density - How many cows can a pasture hold and for how long?

Knowing the amount of dry matter forage a pasture can produce is only part of the equation. The amount of forage required over the grazing season by each animal and the herd as a whole is what determines stocking density.

The overall goal is to define the proper combination of land, time and number of animals to ensure the sustained, long-term productivity of the pasture. The optimum number of animals on the pasture makes efficient use of the forage without waste but still leaves enough forage to allow quick and complete plant recovery. 

Understocking

  • Setting the stocking rate too low will result in wasted forage and lost profit potential.
  • Long term understocking (under grazing) can result in a less productive pasture as more woody plants take up residence.

Overstocking

  • Setting the stocking rate too high for too long will result in lowered intake, lowered animal growth and diminished profits.
  • Overstocking (overgrazing) leads to a reduction in desirable plant species and an increase in less desirable plants.
  • Overuse also means that livestock must forage for longer periods of time to meet their needs and that results in decreased average daily gain (ADG).
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Active management

Pasture management is an active process. If no effort or time is put into the system then the return will be minimal to the producer. Continually evaluating and adjusting with guidance from measurable data is the key to success.

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Genetic choices for a grazing herd

Fertility

Whether it is dairy or beef, fertility is still the driver of profitability for any cattle grazing system. Producers should keep fertility as the main focus when selecting genetics for their herd.

Longevity

The length of time an animal remains profitable in a system maximizes the return on a producer’s initial investment. The initial investment can be raising or buying a replacement. Either way, the longer the animal stays in your herd as a profitable member the better.

Feet and legs

Feet and legs are one of the main factors in the longevity of a cow in both grazing and confinement systems. Cattle on pasture walk more than cattle in confinement and the ability of cattle to move is incredibly important in order to eat grass on pasture. Solid feet and legs should keep a cow profitable in your system for a long time.

Supplementing a grazing herd

The decision to supplement cattle on pasture is determined by several factors.

  • Current and future pasture availability are the most important factors. If cattle do not have access to adequate pasture then supplementation might be needed.
  • If you know pasture will not be available in time for rotation, you can supplement to preserve the current pasture or delay the move.
  • Using body condition scoring to determine ideal weights for your cows can give you insight on whether or not feed in addition to pasture is needed.

Joe Armstrong, DVM, Extension cattle production systems educator and Brad Heins, Extension dairy educator

Reviewed in 2019

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