Match pastures to cattle needs

Jim Gerrish, with American Grazing Services in Idaho, helps ranchers maximize pasture resources with planned grazing, matching cattle to feed resources to take advantage of what their ranch produces. Timing calving so peak lactation coincides with peak grass production helps.

“Many ranchers don’t realize how much the feed demand increases for cows at peak lactation. Beef cows with high milk expected progeny differences have feed requirements 60% to 80% higher than maintenance levels. A herd of 100 cows at peak lactation would be equivalent to about 160 cows, in feeding them,” says Gerrish of May, Idaho.

Key Points

Grazing management depends on the cows’ needs.

Time calving to match peak feed demand with peak pasture resources.

Forage resources dictate how you manage them.


In northern climates, late-spring or early-summer calving is one way to match peak demand with peak forage production. With fall calving, one strategy is to wean calves at start of spring grass, to graze lush pastures rotationally, following them with dry pregnant cows to clean up.

Types of forage plants in a pasture are not as important as what you do with them. “Even some of what we consider less-than-desirable forages can be used effectively if grazed at peak nutrient quality,” says Gerrish. Avoiding maturity and grazing the plant sooner — when it’s immature and has optimal energy, protein level and palatability — can maximize animal performance on these forages.

“Garrison creeping foxtail is an example. Many people don’t consider it good forage, but if we graze it in spring when it’s immature, we get excellent animal performance,” says Gerrish. It can be grazed and allowed to regrow, keeping it at a vegetative and more palatable stage.

Grazing strategy

“Controlled grazing, going to shorter grazing periods — moving cattle every day — not only increases uniformity of grazing and provides more consistent pasture, but also improves animal nutrition,” says Gerrish.

Shorter grazing periods take away opportunity for selective grazing. “When you put cows in a new pasture for a week, they eat all the best forage within the first two days. If you can split that pasture into more feed breaks, you get better individual animal performance,” he explains.

“The greater the nutritional demand of that animal [stocker or lactating cow vs. dry cow], the greater the benefit of going to shorter grazing periods. You really see this with pasture-based dairies. Typically, they move cows to new pasture after every milking, so cows are in a pasture for only 12 hours.

But some dairy producers move cows again between milkings. No matter how full a cow thinks she is, if you open up a new bunch of feed, she’ll eat some more,” he says. For grass-finished cattle, this would maximize their intake and production.

High-density, short-duration grazing is healthiest for the land and vegetation, spreading manure more uniformly. “Also, if you graze pasture at its optimum quality stage, breakdown of manure is much swifter than if forage was grazed at a more mature stage,” he explains.

Smith Thomas is from Salmon, Idaho

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RANCHER JIM GERRISH: “Stored feed costs are the biggest expense for most ranchers. The goal is to reduce stored feed use with more grazing.”

This article published in the October, 2011 edition of WESTERN FARMER-STOCKMAN.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.