Tuesday, February 28, 2023

How many cows?

In response to a post I put up a couple weeks ago on how our neighbor's cows just had calves, a reader asked: "Is there a general rule of how much acreage a heifer would take? We're thinking of getting one next year, but not sure we have enough. We have about 10 acres, but most of it is wooded, so we would have to supplement the 2 - 3 acres of pasture with hay."

There's no cut-and-dried one-size-fits-all requirement for how much land a cow needs, because it depends on whether you're planning on grazing your animals year-round, confining your animals to a paddock, or something in between. It also depends on whether you live in the lush croplands of Virginia or the dry Mohave Desert.

Yet another variable is whether you must feed during the winter, or if your winters are mild enough that the animals can graze year round. If you live in Tennessee, your pasture and available forage will be far different than if you live in North Dakota.

Obviously there's no easy answer to how much land a cow requires. The important thing is not to obtain more animals than your land can comfortably support. Work with what you have, and be prepared to supplement with purchased hay as needed.

Remember, a cow's "job" – what she does for twelve hours a day – is to eat. It is surprising how quickly a cow or two can eat down a small pasture.  But just because you only have a one-acre field shouldn't preclude you from getting cows. However, you will need to purchase hay to feed them, because one acre is not enough land to support anything bovine.

Cows can indeed be kept on small plots – an acre or two – but they must be fed. We used to own a home with a two-acre pasture on which we kept three bovines (cow/calf and yearling steer). We needed to supplement their feed about nine months out of the year.

Additionally, the reader mentioned he/she was getting ONE heifer. Please don't. Get two. Consider getting a steer or another heifer as a companion. Cows are herd animals, and a solitary cow suffers from loneliness and may act out with behavioral issues as a result.


  1. Believe it or not, you better check your local and state zoning laws. Amazingly, folks who have never been close enough to touch livestock have written laws about how much land you must have to "be allowed" to keep livestock and in what numbers. And that is IF you are allowed to have livestock at all!
    And even if you are "allowed" to keep livestock, might be a good idea to stealthily poll your immediate neighbors first. Even with a legal right to keep livestock, idiot neighbors can make your life a nightmare of costly legal actions (nuisance laws).

    1. it's because of the manure.

      bovines eat ...and therefore...having a nutrient management plan in place helps.
      somewhere to spread the manure.
      equipment to spread it.

  2. Sage advice.
    We human beings think in term of ourselves, our needs, and what we want and want to plan for. Our companion animals which can include farm animals, are quite different.
    Your reader is to be commended for checking out their "plan" with a source they trusted for guidance, you.
    And you clearly love animals of all sorts judging from the pictures and much of what you write. I so appreciate your remark about cows being herd animals.
    All animals are as unique as human beings, including their own unique DNA. They each also have distinctly unique personalities, though within their breed there are common characteristics. And much of "who" they are can depend on past experiences with people, both positive and negative.
    One friend who house sat for me years ago hated cats, and one of the reasons I needed a house sitter was for my two cats. I came home a week later to someone who had fallen in love with my cats and no longer hated that kind of animal. My cats had never known anything but love and being treated with respect , and they treated her that way and won her over.
    Dogs are pack animals and you have to "lead their pack". That took me a while to learn.
    Horses do not thrive alone but also need horsey companions.
    Anyway, great post.

  3. We answered an ad on CL on a man wanting to buy land and home for 60 cow/calf pairs and we told him we had 110 acres and he turned us down. Not enough for him. We even have a couple small hay fields and he did not think it was enough. Who knows what is enough.

  4. When it comes to acreage per cow (or cows per acre), it's true that it is mostly about location. Here in Florida, it might be 1 acre per cow, or 4 acres per cow. With us, it depends on what is in the pasture and what type of soil. Sheep and/or goats can graze the pasture with the cow(s) eating the broad-leaved plants (in the case of goats, the brush) that the cow doesn't like, and increase the carrying capacity with no additional feed inputs. Put some chickens in portable coops for fly control (yummy maggots!) to break up the cow patties and till them into the soil. Here, the pasture that has been through the portable chicken pens turns from a bare piece of ground where everything has been eaten to lush emerald green growth preferentially grazed in @ a week.