Conservative stocking rates may allow for greater flexibility in management
“Stocking rate is the most important management decision we can make,” remarks Hugh Aljoe of the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation.
“It’s a little bit complicated because stocking rate is something that we, as producers, tend to want to set and keep constant,” he adds.
Stocking rate, defined as the number of head in a given area, and carrying capacity, or the amount of forage produced in that area, can also confuse the matter.
“These terms are interchanged but have very different meanings,” he says.
Carrying capacity can vary quite a bit, primarily due to precipitation, including from one extreme to another between one year and the next.
Aljoe comments, “The question we should be asking ourselves is, what is our stocking rate and what would be appropriate?”
To assess the question of appropriate stocking rates, he suggests evaluating the number of months that are planned for feeding hay versus the number of months when hay is actually fed.
“For every month we are feeding hay in addition to what we have planned, we can figure we are about 8.3 percent overstocked, at a minimum,” he says. “For example, if we are feeding two months of hay above what we originally planned, we’re probably 15 to 17 percent overstocked, based on no other information other than what we have used historically when feeding hay.”
One way to manage for years with low precipitation is to use a conservative stocking rate. This provides extra forage in dry years as well as opportunities for pasture recovery in an active growing season.
“That’s important when it comes to a bit of a dry spell because we know some of our pastures may get more use than we had originally intended,” he notes.
Another advantage to conservative stocking rates is the ability to retain a calf crop after weaning when markets dictate better values.
Extreme forage surplus can also be used as a strategic enterprise, such as hay that can be sold or stored for dry years.
Next, Aljoe asks, “How do we go about determining stocking rate and what the current carrying capacity of our ranch is at any given time?”
He suggests creating an annual forage assessment, or a spreadsheet that outlines total forage production and graze-able acres on the ranch, as well as forage types on the ranch and in the surrounding area.
“We can go to the USDA web soil survey and at least make some projections on what the forage productive capabilities might be relative to our region and our area,” he comments.
At that point, producers can determine how conservative they want their stocking rate to be considering how precipitation fluctuates in the area and by asking themselves a series of questions.
“How many cows do I have now? How many cows have I had historically?” Aljoe asks. “How much hay do I feed annually? And has my pasture management changed in recent years?”
In summary, Aljoe reiterates that stocking rates are very important to pasture management decisions and that carrying capacity often fluctuates dramatically.
“Climate extremes are normal. Average is not normal. We need to ask how we want to manage for these climate extremes,” he states.
Keeping track of forage production throughout the year is also helpful, as it allows producers to identify upcoming challenges and opportunities.
“If we stock conservatively, it provides us the opportunity to have greater flexibility and provide opportunities within the operation to provide better land stewardship and take advantage of marketing opportunities,” he says.
Natasha Wheeler is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.