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Grazing principles apply universally

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

            Grazing is important for every cattle operation. Grazing management can vary from operation to operation dependent on climate and precipitation. However, principles and practices can play a major role in how well pastures can perform and in return, feed cattle. 

            In a recent Working Cows podcast, CEO of Ranch Management Consultants Dallas Mount explains the grazing principles he recommends and teaches in his Ranching for Profit school.

            “These principles are universal – they can be used anywhere, in any environment and this is why they are so valuable,” shares Mount. “Oftentimes, people want to dive right into practice, but there is a difference between practices and principles.”

            He continues, “I think principles are what influences decisions in regard to grazing and practices are how the principles are applied. Principles will work everywhere, whereas practices are dependent on environment, climate and precipitation.”

Resting pastures

            Mount shares there are five main grazing principles producers should use when making decisions regarding grazing. 

            “Principle one is the most important,” Mount says. “I consider the top priority principle should be the rest period of a pasture. This is most often referred to as the recovery period.”

            He explains the timing of a recovery period is difficult. In an example, Mount shares, “If producers are turning animals out into a pasture and saying, ‘I wish this pasture had a couple more weeks on it,’ the probability of the recovery period being wrong is very high.”

Mount also shares recovery periods will never be exactly the same, as there are too many varying factors for recovery periods to remain consistent. Producers should pay attention to cattle performance, plants and soil moisture, and then use these metrics to help determine recovery periods.

Grazing capacity and flexibility

“I believe matching the stocking rate and carrying capacity is the second most important grazing principle,” Mount shares. “Matching these two things is quite literally just the same as supply and demand.”

            He explains the capacity of the land should be built to support animals. Carrying capacity is focused on the number of cattle a pasture can hold, while stocking rate is just the opposite, taking into consideration how much forage cattle will consume. 

            Stocking rate and carrying capacity can be drastically influenced by drought, he notes.  Mount recommends producers keep their enterprise flexible.

            “Producers should keep cattle numbers flexible,” Mount says. “I always suggest keeping the amount of cattle which can’t be sold very low, as keeping too many cattle one refuses to sell can potentially cripple management.”

He adds, “Carrying capacity changes seasonally and annually. These changes are also dependent on climate and temperatures as well as precipitation. Keeping enterprises flexible allows producers to downsize herds during a drought and increase herd numbers when drought is non-existent.”

Mount recommends producers set several pre-established dates where they can take a look at the condition of a pasture. This should tell producers if they need to destock or move cattle and give hints as to what the carrying capacity under certain conditions might be.

“I would rather have money in my pocket and grass available rather than be stuck with too many cattle and not enough grass,” Mount explains. “I don’t recommend keeping cattle through a drought if it is going to put producers in a sticky situation.”

Stocking density

            “Stocking density is number three on my list of principles,” Mount states. “I always say the higher the density, the better for the pasture.”

            He shares, “Most often, stock density is determined in pounds per acre. However, I like to think of stock density in terms of mouths and hooves per acre instead of pounds because mouth and hooves are actually what is affecting a pasture.”

            Soil and the plants growing in pastures recover better when they are heavily grazed for a short amount of time rather than slowly grazed over a long period of time, according to Mount. 

            “Plants and soil would rather have a large volume of animals for a short period of time rather than a small amount of animals over a long period of time,” Mount notes. “This is one fantastic tool to help create successional change within environments and ecosystems.”

            Stock density also allows producers to increase stocking rates due to the recovery time allowed for plants to grow.

            “If producers have large pastures where a lot of the grass goes ungrazed for years, they could split it into several smaller pastures,” Mount explains. “This technique provides producers the opportunity to get cattle to graze undesirable grasses.”

Animal behavior and grazing periods

            Principle number four – herd effect – is a tool sometimes used to make changes, Mount explains. Herd effect is the behavior of a large herd of animals.

            “I don’t believe herd effect should be used in every pasture on every acre,” shares Mount. “Herd effect is a tool which should be used in some places, sometimes.”

            An example of using herd effect for managemet is placing a mineral tub at the bottom of a gully, which encourages cattle to go into the gully. It also hopefully helps prevent further erosion.

            “Producers can also use herd effect to get rid of problem grasses,” Mount says. “With the correct timing and management, producers can use their cattle to stomp down tough grasses and encourage different plants to grow.”

            Principle number five is grazing periods. Grazing periods are very influential to ecosystems.

            “I always recommend keeping grazing periods short,” Mount shares. “Keeping periods short will improve performance of both cattle and grass.”

            In addition to careful grazing periods, producers should also manage the severity of grazing. Grazing periods and the severity of grazing is essentially maintaining the balance between peak nutritional value and the crash which occurs if grazed too long.

            “Ultimately, a short period of severe grazing will also aid in performance,” Mount comments. “Allowing cattle to heavily graze an area also aids in the process of getting rid of troublesome plants.”

All five of the stocking principles go hand in hand. Producers are trying to prevent overgrazing, which is often considered the function of too many animals. However, Mount shares it is a function of time. Staying in pastures for too long or coming on too soon may result in overgrazing. Mount shares a producer’s ultimate goal should be to aid in biodiversity throughout grazing pastures.

Madi Slaymaker is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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