Adjusting Stocking Rates for Winter

goats on grass

Many of you are once again having to make a decision as to how many animals your pastures can carry this winter without abusing the resource.  How to make that decision accurately sometimes takes the wisdom of Solomon.

However, there is a technique that is not too difficult to learn that can be used to help you estimate the amount of livestock you can keep.  That technique is to evaluate the current use of your forage and then relate that to your stocking rate.

Take a good general look at your forage use in each pasture, and rate it either no use, light use, moderate use, heavy use, or severe use.  No use is easy to figure out.  It applies only if you know there were no livestock in the pasture for this year’s forage growth up to the day you evaluate it.

Light use would be if you saw that many, but not all,  desirable plants for your area show some grazing on them, and the less desirable plants show almost no use.

For a moderate use rating you should see that most of the more desirable plants show grazing on them, but not too severely, and a small percentage of the less desired plants show some light grazing.

For heavy use, all of the more desirable species should show heavy use and the less desirable plants should show moderate use.

Severe use should exhibit severe grazing on all plants that your livestock might find desirable and heavy use on the less desirable forages.  You may even see use on toxic plants, or plants that are normally outside their grazing selection.

In making a fall assessment of grazing use, if you are at light use, your stocking rate is about where it needs to be.  This should put your pasture at moderate use by the time new spring growth begins to start the pasture’s new growth year.  So not reduction in numbers should be needed to keep livestock production near normal for winter.

By not going beyond moderate use of the range plants, you will be able to utilize the pasture without putting undo stress on the plants.  Also, you will not have to increase your supplement levels to maintain productivity.

However, if your pasture is at moderate use in the fall, then you will run short of forage during the winter which will create nutritional problems for your livestock.  Running short of forage will cause your livestock to have to select less desirable plants which will be lower in nutritional quality, and also reduce their forage intake per day.  Combined these changes will make for a marked reduction in nutritional intake, and increase supplementation to maintain your livestock’s productivity.

To maintain your productivity and prevent excessive supplementation in a situation where you have moderate use of a pasture by the fall, reduce your stocking rate by 25%.  By reducing the animal numbers, you will make more of the desirable forages available to those you keep, which should allow them to have higher nutritional intake.  It will also help you to not have to feed more supplement, thereby saving some feed costs.

If your fall pasture use rating is heavy, however, then you will need to reduce your numbers by 50% to prevent abusing your pasture resource this year.  With heavy use by the fall, you will have to be doing some substitute feeding of hay, or large amounts of other supplements, because the livestock will have their forage intake severely reduced.

Also the livestock will be forced to consume forages that are their third and fourth choices of desirability which are much lower in nutritional value than their preferred choices.  Both of these situations will mean you will have a very high supplementation costs, if you continue to keep the same livestock numbers that got you to this point.

With heavy grazing by fall, you will also see a slow grow rate of the forages in the spring, thus taking a longer time for the pasture to recover from the overgrazing.  Another undesirable result of the overgrazing is that most of the moisture from a hard rain will run off of the land because there is little forage material to intercept the raindrops and keep the soil in a condition to allow the moisture to infiltrate.

If you rate the pasture use as severe by the fall, then you will need to reduce numbers by at least 75%, or prepare to feed your livestock most of what they will have to eat for the rest of the winter.  With a pasture in this condition, the livestock really won’t have much of a choice as to what forages they will eat.  They will have to eat whatever forages they can find.  If they happen to find some toxic plants, they are liable to eat them, too.

Livestock in pastures with severe use by fall will have to be supplemented with some form of roughage as well as protein and energy.  And there is no way you will not do some lasting damage to the forages in the pasture.  Unless your livestock are extremely valuable to you, it would be wise to sell them, or find another source of forage for them.  If you have to keep them, it may be cheaper to feed them in more of a feedlot situation to prevent abuse to the pasture.

Facing another winter with less than normal forage in the pastures is becoming an unwanted broken record that keeps repeating each year.  However, to prevent abuse and damage to the productivity of your pasture resources, you must remain vigilant to keep your livestock numbers in line with the amount of forage you do have.

Keeping your forage an animals in balance will allow you to maintain the productivity of the livestock you can keep, and keep your production costs down.  Those are the keys to keeping your livestock operation as profitable as possible.  And your pasture resource will be able to recover and be productive for many more years.

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