Keeping your animals on pasture obviously has financial benefits, and you’ve probably heard of the numerous health benefits, as well. Even nonruminants like pigs and poultry can derive a great portion of their diet from the pasture, although they will need some type of supplemental feed. So how do you make it all work?
The key to using pasture as your sole or primary animal feed is to keep it in good shape. This means you can’t let your livestock trample or graze it into the dirt. The best way to avoid this is to ration pasture out just like you would feed—you give the animals a small space for a day or maybe a couple of days and then move them onto a fresh paddock. You keep working your way across your pastures in this fashion.
This is just a very superficial overview of rotational and management-intensive grazing methods. There’s actually a whole art to it, which is way beyond the scope of this post. Check the Helpful Resources below for more information.
Another thing you’ll have to think about is how many animals you can safely keep on your land. Stocking rates vary widely (sometimes even on the same property). Five acres per cow-calf pair seems to be the average in most parts of Kansas.
The cow-calf pair can in turn be used as a standard of measure, known as the animal unit, to calculate stocking rates for other types of livestock. Thus, on our average five Kansas acres, we could place one of the following options:
- 1 cow-calf pair.
- 1 stocker calf.
- 3 ewe-lamb pairs.
- 5 mature goats.
- 1 pony (not a full-sized horse).
- 1 bison.
- 1 elk.
Stocking rates for pastured pork production have not received as much attention as those for other animals, so be prepared to do your own hands-on field research. A good starting point is to plan on about 10 pigs for every acre. Young, newly weaned pigs can be stocked more densely, while sows with litters will require more space.
Note that there are many variables that will affect your stocking rate. A 1,500-pound beef cow will require 1-1/2 times as much pasture as a 1,000-pound beef cow, for instance. Irrigation can squeeze more forage production out of your land. Also, simple attention to good grazing management will almost certainly raise your stocking rate above that of your neighbors!
Always err on the safe side when it comes to stocking rate. If you have a little more grass than your livestock need, it’s not a serious problem, but if you’re stuck with hungry animals, you’ll find yourself either buying hay or selling animals. Both can be painful, especially in a drought when everybody else is doing the same thing. A good rule of thumb is that if you don’t have enough experience to look at your land and roughly gauge how many animals you can put on it, you probably don’t need very many animals (at least not yet). Some experienced graziers recommend starting with herds as small as two to five head when learning grazing management.
Even in the winter, you may be able to keep your animals on pasture with proper planning. Stockpiling forage and planting cool-season grasses are two techniques for extending the grazing season and minimizing hay and feed consumption. Some animals, particularly dry beef cows, may even be able to thrive on dormant range grass in the winter with a protein supplement.
Of course, winter brings an end to the grazing season. Then what? Fortunately, hay and silage offer grain-free options.
Keep in mind that the quality of your harvested forage is very important. Animals cannot thrive on moldy hay, which can be a problem if the hay was improperly harvested or stored. Furthermore, blister beetles are toxic and can be a major problem in hay, particularly if you are feeding horses, so keep an eye out. Finally, remember that any pungent odors or flavors in hay for dairy animals will end up in your family’s milk supply!
The nutrient profile of the hay will depend on the types of forages that went into it. Legume hay is particularly noteworthy, as its high protein content can be absolutely essential or a needless expense, depending on what types of animals you have in what stages of production. Lactating animals will require more nutrition than dry animals (which is why it’s generally advisable to time breeding so that livestock will give birth when the weather is warm and the pastures are lush).
When it comes to sourcing harvested forage, you have three main options:
- Harvest it yourself.
- Have it custom-baled on your land.
- Purchase it.
Determining which option is best for you is largely a matter of putting pencil to paper to work out the dollars and cents of the question. Also keep in mind that harvesting your own hay offers you more control over the quality but can be very expensive on a small scale. Purchasing hay, provided that it is good quality, offers an opportunity to bring in a natural source of soil fertility from outside, but it can also introduce noxious weeds and similar difficulties.
Some animals will need feed to perform well and stay healthy. With these animals, you will have to be careful to keep your costs down without sacrificing the quality of their diet. Poultry and swine typically need some grain for peak health and performance. While ruminants are generally healthier without grain, some genetic lines (particularly among dairy animals) are bred for high production levels and may require feeding to avoid a breakdown. Horses may require supplemental feeding in winter or if working hard on a regular basis.
All this said, many animals are fed far more than is strictly necessary or even healthy. When determining whether or not your livestock will require feed, it is important to take genetics into account. If your goal is to minimize feed costs as much as possible, you will do well to seek out low-maintenance breeds, and low-maintenance genetics within those breeds. Thankfully, every livestock species still has breeds (typically heritage breeds) adapted to rustling their own living off the land.
Also consider your production system. Minimizing feed costs requires good attention to grazing management, and the smaller your property, the more important grazing management becomes. Furthermore, avoiding feed will often require some sacrifices, such as breeding in sync with the climate and accepting lower production levels.
What about growing your own grain for feed? Well, it just depends. Not only can creating a balanced ration be something of an art, the cost of making the feed can quickly add up to more than the purchase price elsewhere. Do the math. Does it make sense financially? Also, can you consistently guarantee the quantity and quality that your animals will need to stay healthy, particularly when first starting out?
What kinds of supplements (if any) you need will largely depend on what kind of animals you have and where you live. Two people rarely agree on one magic formula. Many advocates of natural ways of raising all types of ruminants swear by kelp, and free-choice salt is also recommended in many situations. But what if your chickens are laying hens? Then you might want oyster shell or a feed that contains oyster shell. And what if you have dairy animals? You may need to consider a variety of vitamin supplements to keep them in top form. And what if your pastures are particularly poor? You may need a general-purpose stock lick.
The only way to know for sure what supplements will be necessary for your livestock is to do your research and then try it out. See what deficiencies are most common in your area to get off to a good start, but also be prepared to adjust down the road.
Planning a healthy diet for your animals is probably the most critical as far as your finances and their health are concerned, so take your time. Once you have a rough plan to reach your production, animal health, and food quality goals, you are ready to start looking into your breed options.
What is Management-Intensive Grazing?
An introduction to meeting the needs of both pastures and animals. Includes plenty of additional reading material.
Intensive Grazing: An Introductory Homestudy Course
For those who just want the basics of grazing management, this bulletin packs a great deal of essential information into a concise format.
What are Animal Units?
How to figure out how many animals your land can support.
Our own guide to the functions and natural sources of vitamins, along with symptoms of deficiency and toxicity.