For Release January 21, 2003

Donít Overstock Your Pastures

by Chuck Otte, Geary County Extension Agent

Every spring, usually in early May, the Kansas Ag Statistics Service publishes the Bluestem Pasture Rental Report. The report details average price per acre, average price per cow calf pair, average double stocking rates, ranges of rental rates, and lots of other information including average acres of grass per head or pair. This report becomes the defacto standard for rental rates as well as pasture stocking rates.

This report is very valuable for the rental rates that it reports. It is absolutely worthless in helping you determine stocking rate for your pasture. In the 20+ years that I have been reading this report, the average acres guaranteed per head or pair hasnít hardly changed.

The stocking rate of any pasture depends on many factors, including the acres of usable grass, the grass species mix, the type of livestock you are putting in it, the condition of the pasture coming out of last year and the expected rainfall (grass production) for this year. I donít care how big a pasture is, I want to know how many acres of usable grass are in it. If your pasture is predominantly bluestem and indiangrass it has the potential to produce more pounds of forage than if you have predominantly sideoats grama, cheatgrass and bluegrass. If you are stocking yearlings, then your rate is going to be different than stocking cows with spring calves.

One of the most obvious problems that I have observed in pasture stocking rates is that the same average stocking rate is being used as was used 30 years ago. Have you noticed the difference in size between cows today and cows of 30 years ago? They are bigger. They may easily be 20% to 25% bigger. There is one basic principle of living creatures. A larger cow eats more than a smaller cow. One thing that hasnít changed is that the pastures of today will produce the same amount of forage as a similar composition pasture of 30 years ago. If you are stocking larger cows on the same number of acres as smaller cows, then the larger cows will be eating more of the grass on every acre than the smaller cows.

For the grass in a pasture to remain healthy and in a good mix of species, you have to leave a certain amount of the foliage for the plant to live on. General rule of thumb is somewhere between one half and one third of the total production needs to be left for the health of the plant. If you take a higher percentage of the total forage, the grasses start to become weaker, they will decrease in quantity and will usually be replaced by plants that have lower forage value (palatability) in the pasture. You become caught up in a downward spiral of decreasing production, decreasing forage quality and decreasing livestock returns.

Then we throw in the weather factor. In a summer like 2002, a pasture probably only produced 50% of normal. Did you stock at half the normal rate or pull the cattle half way through the season? Probably not.

The bottom line here is that we need to start making adjustments to stocking rates. Pasture owners need to start evaluating the current condition of their pastures and then calculate proper stocking rates. Then we need to make some additional reductions due to the weather and the need to rest those pastures a little so they can begin to recover. Pasture management is a paddock by paddock situation. One size doesnít fit all and no one stocking rate will work for every pasture.


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