How many cows could a cowboy keep if a cowboy could keep cows?

This morning I refined our grazing plan for the ranch. Most importantly, I re-checked my calculations for our stocking rates – the number of cows per acre under certain conditions. Knowing and following stocking rates are critical to *sustainable* rangeland management. Too many cows (and I use that term to apply to any bovine on the place) result in overgrazing, erosion, nutrient depletion and soil degradation. Too few are also problematic as forage species composition can shift to domination by less desirable species, overgrowth can be a fire hazard, and (although it’s counter-intuitive) under-grazing also can result in reduced productivity.

Because this is our first year, I had to start with some assumptions for my calculations. I chose to use average forage production rates for the two primary soil types we have. I used rough acreage calculations: I estimated 150 total grazing acres, roughly half each in two soil types. (We should probably map the property more precisely.)

All this is to say, we’re starting with a stocking rate of 11 cows for year-round grazing, given the drought and lack of hard data. Doesn’t sound like much, but if we are lucky enough to see an end to this drought soon, we could comfortably graze twice that many. Bringing in additional feed reduces the dependence on pasture (and allows more animals per acre), but we have a preference for grass-finished beef. Certain management techniques, such as intensive rotational grazing and composting, could further increase our productivity.

For now, though, we have a starting point and I’ll be monitoring the land closely to ensure sustainable land stewardship as well as tasty steaks!

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