Monday, September 27, 2021

Pasture requirements

A reader just sent in a question as follows: "I know it is just fall, but I am one those that plans ahead. Say in the spring I wanted just 4 cows, how much pasture minimum am I looking at?"

There is no cut-and-dried answer to this question because there are so many variables involved. Climate, latitude, rainfall, quality of vegetation, etc., all factor in. Pasture requirements differ between, say, Louisiana, Nevada, Wisconsin, and Maine.

Since I'm having a very busy week and don't have time to do this question justice – despite its importance – I thought I would let readers chime in with their advice and experience.

So let's hear your answers, folks. How much minimum pasture should this woman consider for four cows?


  1. There is no suitable answer without knowing her variables. Best bet would be the local county agent.

    If you have to have a starting point right now, ,for instance, from Morrison's "Feeds and Feeding" (1950) for dairy cattle: "The carrying capacity of pastures varies widely, depending on the soil and climate ... If no supplemental feed is provided for periods of drought, 1.5 to 2.5 acres of fairly good pasture should be provided per cow, ..."

    But this is still not right for her.

  2. I'll pose a different starter question: do you have a Plan B in case your eventual decision isn't entirely right?

    Look around to see if you have neighbours who can offer grazing space at a reasonable price in case you need it or in case it's actually a better deal.

    Also, is the point of this thought exercise to stay free of supplemental feed?

    Maybe a hybrid solution works better if you're trying for grass-fed beef: start with the space you can afford, the cattle you can afford, and see if you need supplemental hay bales and fresh grass.

    But it'd be better to start with knowing a mistake won't hurt because you can get some support from neighbours who can provide grazing space or the kinds of supplemental feed you want.

    In other words, just assume your initial constraints and assumptions are partly wrong despite your best efforts, and instead focus on being able to adjust for actual conditions with support already pre-arranged.

    Also see: how to optimise Diophantine geometries for best-fit conditions, a favourite party game among mathematicians. :-)

  3. My youngest sister and her family own a ranch in northern Wyoming. It takes 40 acres to support one cow/calf pair. Not much rainfall and no irrigated pastures. You are so right in that the answer to the reader's question depends on local factors. Much better to seek answers from someone local.

  4. Too many variables to give any valid answer. Location, local soil type, average precipitation, drought experience, quality of pasture, cross fencing available,type of cow, breed of cow, tree or brush cover, elevation, average temperature,etc all will impact carrying capacity.
    Here in Central Texas you will end up feeding hay part of every year with anything less than about 10 acres per head on unimproved pastures.

    Pete in Texas

  5. I'll endorse checking locally for good information. I grew up on the Pacific Northwest (50s and 60s, back when it was still conservative). We owned 10 to 15 head of Black Angus and owned/boarded 5 to 10 horses on 80 acres. Plus, we filled two barns with hay in the summer. Then I lived in New Mexico for 40 years, where ranchers need way, WAY more acreage to support fewer numbers. The variables are just too wide to answer here.