Free Range Cattle – How Much Space Does a Small Herd Need?

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Free-range cattle are cattle which are allowed to roam for food over a large area without being impeded by fences or being reduced to an enclosed space. This definition is actually partly true, because cattle are still confined to a fenced-in area (called a pasture), and this area isn’t always large, especially if such a question as “how much space does a small herd need?” should exist!

Because I had only chosen this title out of a list of title suggestions and therefore could not correct the wording, I must first explain how “free-range” shouldn’t really apply to cattle, except dairy cows. In most livestock operations free-range really only applies to poultry or pigs, not cattle. Free range cattle is a misnomer because most of the time cattle are already sent out to pasture to roam on their own for food without much fencing to keep them from doing what they naturally do best. This is especially true in most beef operations (except feedlot), and is a common occurrence in all cow-calf farming/ranching operations. It also shouldn’t be a surprise that all small-time producers also “free-range” their cattle on a regular basis, even without them realizing it. Besides, who wants to confine a small herd of cattle and have to work for them to keep giving them feed all the time when they can just be out on a small acreage doing a bit of grazing?

This leads me to the ability to answer the question in this title: “How much space does a small herd of cattle need?” Now I am assuming this is for grazing space, since it does apply to the so-called “free-range” aspect, but sometimes you just never know.

What I would like to know first are many different things, such as the following:

  • How “small” is this small herd? Does it comprise of only two animals, or 10?
  • What size are the cattle? Are they young calves, or big, mature cows?
  • What is your location? For instance, are you in the rich grasslands of South Carolina or in the more sparser arid grassland of west Texas? Or, are you much further north, such as in central Alberta or Saskatchewan?
  • What is the vegetation like? Lush or sparse? Good quality, poor quality, native grassland, tame grassland? Are the grasses in their vegetative stage or at maturity?
  • How much precipitation do you get per year or per month?
  • What is the quality if your soil, and what type of soil do you have? Is it loam, sand, clay, or a mix of any of these three? Is it alkaline, acidic, saline, etc?
  • What kind of grazing management practices are you wanting to implement? Are you planning on manage-intensively grazing your cattle, or letting them have free-roam of the whole pasture area? Are you wanting to improve your soil and increase organic matter, or are you just wanting to have some cows around?

I have noticed several articles on this site where a few “expert” cattle authors recommend their readers to have an average of one to one and a half acres per cow. To tell you the truth I don’t agree with those numbers. The reason being is that there are just too many variables at stake to even consider calling 1 to 1.5 acres/cow even close to average. You see, I can see those numbers being applicable to areas where grass is abundant, 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 being managed with a high amount of success. But when it comes to other areas where rotational grazing is impossible to do or there’s simply not enough precipitation to grow as much grass as a producer would like to have that many acres allocated per animal, it’s totally unreasonable and undeniably ridiculous to take those numbers as fact.

The other major concern I have with those numbers is cow size. I seriously question the validation of that “average” stocking rate when it comes to the size of the cow in question. Is that average stocking rate for puny miniature 500 lb cows, or are they applicable for much larger 1600 lb beef’/dairy cows?? Somehow I think it is both and neither. You see, the rate of intake or the amount of grass that is eaten per cow per day is drastically influenced by the body weight of the bovine. A big cow will eat a lot more than a small cow will. Don’t believe me? Take the maintenance requirement of 2.5% of a bovine’s body weight in dry matter ration per day, then multiply it to different body weights of 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 if it’s grass or hay. Now take a miniature 500 lb cow; she will consume 12.5 lbs of dry matter ration per day. Note that those are just maintenance requirements. As-fed values differ greatly depending on moisture content of the forage, physiological requirements of the cow(if she’s lactating, in late pregnancy, in early gestation, etc.), environmental conditions (hot or cold weather), and the quality of the feedstuffs. Therefore, as far as stocking rate is concerned, there is no exact nor even an average value to give to you in this article.

Therefore the best thing that you can do to figure out how much grazing area is needed for your small herd is to answer all the questions above and to visit your local county extension office for information on local stocking rates for your area. Once you have that information you can choose to stock however many animals you want. Just be careful that you don’t over-stock or stock too many that you overgraze your pasture too quick. Over-stocking can mean anything from being optimum for intesive grazing purposes to turning your pasture into a feedlot!


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