Tag Archives: Pastures

Getting Started With Livestock Part 3: Diet

Getting Started with Livestock Part 3: DietKeeping 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?

Pasture

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.

Harvested Forages

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.

Getting Started with Livestock Part 3: DietFeed

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?

Supplements

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.

Helpful Resources

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.

Vitamins
Our own guide to the functions and natural sources of vitamins, along with symptoms of deficiency and toxicity.

What are Animal Units?

What are Animal Units?When extension centers and other information sources discuss stocking rates, they usually make their recommendations in acres per animal (or animals per acre, depending on the climate and the type of animal). For instance, you might read a factsheet that advocates 5 cow-calf pairs to the acre.

There’s one problem with this method of calculating stocking rate—how big are those cows? A 1,400-pound cow eats considerably more than a 900-pound cow.

And what if you want to do mixed-species grazing? How do you figure out how much forage is required to feed both cattle and sheep, for instance?

Enter the animal unit.

Animal Units and Equivalents

A 1,000-pound beef cow with an unweaned calf commonly serves as a standard of measure in grazing management. That standard is the animal unit (AU). The hypothetical beef cow is considered 1 AU.

Because we know roughly how much other types of livestock eat compared to the 1,000-pound beef cow, we can easily make comparisons. We can take the basic AU and modify it to reflect a bigger cow, or a dry cow, or even a goat instead of a cow. The result is the animal unit equivalent (AUE).

Compare the following AUEs:

  • 1,000-pound beef cow with calf: 1.0 AUE.
  • 1,200-pound beef cow with calf: 1.2 AUE.
  • 1,500-pound beef cow with calf: 1.5 AUE.
  • Dry beef cow: 1.0 AUE.
  • Mature bull under 2,000 pounds: 1.5 AUE.
  • Mature bull over 2,000 pounds: 2.0 AUE.
  • Weaned calf: 0.75 AUE.
  • 2-year-old steer or heifer around 700 pounds: 0.8 AUE.
  • Ewe-lamb pair: 0.3 AUE.
  • Mature dry sheep: 0.2 AUE.
  • Yearling sheep: 0.15 AUE.
  • Mature goat: 0.17 AUE.
  • Yearling goat: 0.1 AUE.
  • Mature light horse: 1.25 AUE.
  • Mature heavy horse: 2.0 AUE.
  • Bison: 1.0 AUE.
  • Mature elk: 0.65 AUE.

Determining how many animals you can have on a given piece of land then becomes a matter of matching forage production to livestock needs.

Animal Unit Days and Months

So how long can a pasture feed a given type of animal? A 1,000-pound beef cow with an unweaned calf requires an average of 26 pounds of forage dry matter per day. This gives us the animal unit day (AUD).

Now we come to the animal unit month (AUM). The animal unit month reflects how much forage it takes to feed an animal unit for 30 days. Remember, the animal unit is a 1,000-pound beef cow with a calf, and she consumes 26 pounds of dry-weight forage per day. That gives us 780 pounds of forage for a 30-day period.

The AUM can be used to help you determine the stocking rate for a pasture. Let’s say you have a 40-acre pasture estimated at 0.2 AUM/acre. That means that every acre of the pasture can support 0.2 AUE for 30 days—the entire pasture can support 8 AUE for a month. So for one month you could graze your choice of:

  • 8 beef cow-calf pairs at 1,000 pounds each.
  • 5 beef cow-calf pairs at 1,500 pounds each.
  • 10 steers at 700 pounds each.
  • 26 ewe-lamb pairs.
  • 47 mature goats.
  • 6 light horses.
  • 4 heavy horses.
  • 8 bison.
  • 12 mature elk.

You can also use the AUM to figure out how to mix species in your grazing plan. Just to give you an idea of a few possible combinations, in this scenario you could graze:

  • 4 beef cow-calf pairs at 1,000 pounds each + 13 ewe-lamb pairs.
  • 6 beef steers at 700 pounds each + 2 light horses.
  • 10 ewe-lamb pairs + 29 mature goats.

How do you determine the AUMs for your pasture? Check online for average AUM data in your area. If you can’t find anything specific, you may have to keep your own forage production records. If you determine how much dry-weight forage your pastures produce over a 30-day period, you will have no problem calculating the AUMs, as one AUM uses 780 pounds of forage.

2019 Reading Challenge: Sustainable Agriculture

2019 Reading Challenge: Sustainable AgricultureStart 2019 right with some fresh inspiration! Try a reading challenge!

This year’s theme is sustainable agriculture. To complete the challenge, all you have to do is read 12 books, one from each of the categories listed below, by the end of the year. If you can read an average of one book per month, this should be no problem.

The categories are:

  1. A book published by SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program).
  2. A book written by Joel Salatin.
  3. A book about soil health.
  4. A book about sustainable practices written prior to 1950.
  5. A book about sustainable agriculture published in 2019.
  6. A book with the word organic in the title.
  7. A book about composting.
  8. A book about real food.
  9. A book about agripreneurship.
  10. A book about environmentally friendly farming.
  11. A book about natural pest control.
  12. A book about rotational grazing methods.

A few rules:

  • Books in electronic formats count.
  • Both fiction and nonfiction books count.
  • You can read the books in any order.
  • Books cannot be counted twice, even if they fit into more than one category.

Need some help finding the books? Check out The Homestead Bookshelf to browse our favorite titles. Then sign up for On the Range, your free weekly country living update (learn more here). At the end of every month, we’ll suggest a book for one of the categories.

Let us know what you decide to read! We’d love to hear from you!

Side-Oats Grama

Side-Oats Grama

Side-oats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula) takes its name from its peculiar inflorescence. It grows a stalk varying in length from 3 to 16 inches and tending to zigzag. Somewhere between 12 and 60 very short branches grow from this stalk, dangling to one side. Each branch has three to eight spikelets resembling oat seeds, especially as they mature and fade to a tan color.

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Eastern Gamagrass

Eastern Gamagrass

Eastern gamagrass (Tripsacum dactyloides) is a tall bunchgrass species that ranges from four to eight feet in height. It forms clumps one to four feet across and connected with tough, knotty rhizomes. The plants have roots that extend as far as 20 feet below the surface of the ground, and they are further anchored by corms—short, swollen stems that grow vertically downward.

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Green Foxtail

Green Foxtail

Green foxtail (Setaria viridis) is also known as “green bristle grass,” and little wonder. This common grass has a peculiar upright or nodding cylindric inflorescence covered in bristly hairs. The inflorescence is green on the whole, but often has a purplish tint. It varies from one to five inches in length and can be up to an inch wide. Because of the unusual shape of the inflorescence, it is tempting to classify it as a spike, but it is actually a panicle with many branches—the branches are just very short and hard to find without dissecting the plant. Mutant green foxtail plants with forked inflorescences have been seen in west-central Kansas.

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