Are you trying to make your pastures support as many animals as they did for your dad or even grandad? Is that a wise goal?
Almost weekly, Bruce Anderson, University of Nebraska-Lincoln forage specialist, hears statements like: "Dad used to graze 100 cows on this pasture all season and now I run out after four months with only 90 cows. What's wrong with my pasture?"
Often there is nothing seriously wrong with the pasture, although pasture production might be increased by using improved grazing techniques, fertilizer and weed control, Anderson says. More often, though, the main problem actually is the cows, or more precisely, how we count the cows, Anderson says.
Fifty years ago, most cows were straight English breeds, often easy-keeping Herefords that seldom weighted more than 1,000 pounds.
"Folks calved in April and May, so they started on pasture with about a 100-pound calf. Now it's not unusual to have 1,400-pound cows or even larger with February calves weighing 300 pounds when they start grazing," he says. "That's a big change, grazing a 1,000-pound cow with a 100-pound calf to a 1,400-pound cow with a 300-pound calf. Eleven hundred pounds per pair vs. 1,700 pounds per pair."
Cattle tend to eat 10 to 15 pounds of green grass for every 100 pounds of body weight. So some of today's cow-calf pairs eat almost 50% more when they start grazing in the spring than pairs ate years ago.
"So instead of worrying about stocking rate, maybe you need to consider stocking weight as your pasture guide," according to Anderson. "Then when you add better grazing management, fertilizer and weed control, your pastures will do even better than they did for your ancestors."