Free-range cattle are cattle that are allowed to roam for food over a large area without being hindered by fences or reduced to an enclosed space. This definition is actually partially true, because cattle are still confined to a fenced area (called a pasture), and this area is not always large, especially if a question like “how much space does a small herd need?” should exist!
Because I had only chosen this title from a list of title suggestions and therefore could not correct the wording, I must first explain how “free-range” should not really apply to cattle, except for dairy cows. In most livestock farms, free range really only applies to poultry or pigs, not cattle. Free-range cattle is a misnomer because cattle are already sent out to pasture to roam alone for food without much fencing to prevent them from doing what they naturally do best. This is particularly true in most beef operations (except feedlots), and is a common occurrence in all cow-calf/breeding operations. Nor should it be a surprise that all small-time producers also “fly” their cattle on a regular basis, even without realizing it. Besides, who wants to keep a small herd of cattle and have to work to keep feeding them all the time when they can just be out in a small area and graze a little?
This leads me to the possibility of answering the question in this title: “How much space does a small herd of cattle need?” Now I guess this is for pasture as it relates to the so called “free range” aspect, but sometimes you just never know.
What I want to know first are many different things, such as the following:
- How “small” is this little herd? Does it consist of just two animals, or 10?
- What size are the cattle? Are they young calves, or large, mature cows?
- What is your location? For example, are you in the rich grasslands of South Carolina or the more sparse and dry grasslands of West Texas? Or are you much further north, such as in central Alberta or Saskatchewan?
- How is the vegetation? Lush or sparse? Good quality, poor quality, native grassland, domesticated grassland? Are the grasses in their vegetative stage or at maturity?
- How much rainfall do you get per year or per month?
- What is the quality of your soil and what type of soil do you have? Is it loam, sand, clay or a mixture of any of these three? Is it alkaline, acidic, saline, etc?
- What kind of pasture management practices do you want to implement? Do you plan to intensively graze your cattle, or let them roam freely throughout the grazing area? Do you want to improve the soil and increase organic matter, or do you just want some cows around?
I have noticed several articles on this site where a few “expert” cattle writers advise their readers to average one to one and a half acres per cow. To tell you the truth, I don’t agree with these numbers. The reason is that there are too many variables at play to even consider calling 1 to 1.5 acres/cow even close to the average. You see, I can see that these numbers apply to areas where grass is plentiful, grazing is frequent and they don’t see drought or snow any time of the year. I can even see these numbers being surpassed on operations where rotational grazing is managed with great success. But when it comes to other areas where rotational grazing is impossible to implement or there is simply not enough rainfall to grow as much grass as a producer would like to have allocated as many acres per animal, it is completely unreasonable and undeniably ridiculous to take these the numbers as fact.
The other major concern I have with these numbers is cow size. I seriously question the validation of the “average” herd when it comes to the size of the cow in question. Are the herd averages for small 500lb cows in miniature or do they apply to much larger 1600lb beef/dairy cows? Somehow I think it’s both and neither. You see, the intake rate or amount of grass eaten per cow per day is drastically affected by the body weight of the cattle. A large cow will eat much more than a small cow will. Don’t believe me? Take the maintenance requirement of 2.5% of a cow’s body weight in dry matter ration per day and multiply it to different body weights for different cows. For example, a large Simmental cow will weigh around 1600 lbs. That means she is expected to consume 40 lbs of dry matter ration per day, regardless of whether it is grass or hay. Now take a miniature 500 lb. cow; she will consume 12.5 lbs of dry matter ration per day. Note that these are maintenance requirements only. The values fed vary greatly depending on the moisture content of the feed, the physiological needs of the cow (if she is lactating, late in pregnancy, early in pregnancy, etc.), environmental conditions (hot or cold weather) and the quality of feed. Therefore, when it comes to stock frequency, there is no exact or even an average value to give you in this article.
Therefore, the best thing you can do to determine how much pasture is needed for your small herd is to answer all of the above questions and visit your local county extension office for information on local stocking rates for your area. Once you have that information, you can choose to save as many animals as you want. Just make sure you don’t stock too much or stock too many that you overgraze too quickly. Overstocking can mean anything from being optimal for intensive grazing purposes to turning the pasture into a feedlot!