Grazing Cattle: Using Grass To Feed Your Herd

Hereford cow grazing

I love to see cattle, or any other animal, grazing out in the pasture! Cattle get on beautifully with just grass.

The question is how do you make it happen so both you and the cattle are happy with the results?

Cattle can eat grass to get all of their nutrient requirements for maintenance and growth, since grass and other forages are a complete diet for cattle.

We’ve all seen cattle grazing a beautiful stand of grass, I know this is what I picture in my mind.

When I think of happy cattle and feeling good about raising beef, this is the ideal I’m shooting for.

Is Raising Your Own Beef Worth It?, check out this article for details including budgets and costs of beef per pound to get it into your freezer.

Unfortunately, we’ve all seen pictures of cattle standing in a ruined field or no field at all. This is definitely not what I want to have happen on my farm!

Rain, too much or too little, and other less than ideal weather conditions are just a few of the things we need to keep in mind as we manage our herd.

How do we keep the cattle happy while keeping the grass and other forages happy? We’ll start with the basics and move on from there.

Cattle graze by grabbing grass with the tounge

Cattle graze by roaming around a field looking for the best grass then ripping it off to eat it.

A cow will use her tounge to grab a small section of grass and pull it into her mouth so she can cut it off with her teeth. She has to pull the grass in because she doesn’t have upper teeth, just lower ones.

This is a close up of our Jersey cow, Aleene, eating grass.

A cow will eat the grass or other plants she likes the most first then eat the others if she is still hungry.

This is why some areas of the pasture will grow up and not be eaten while other areas are repeatedly nipped off, those are the tasty plants.

In order to better use your pasture you need to limit the area the cattle have for the day, then move them to a different area tomorrow.

This will limit picky eating and the more important one, nipping off the regrowth. Nipping off the regrowth diminishes the plant and will eventually kill it off-yikes!

Cattle graze for daily calories

Cattle need to graze to take in enough calories for the day just like you need to eat. Strictly speaking, cattle can be fed in other ways, like in a barn or feedlot.

However, the barn and or feedlot both require machinery and monetary investments to get the cattle and the feed together. Then, of course, you have to get the manure out.

Unless you are grazing your cattle, you are making a lot of extra work for yourself. Why not just take the cattle to the grass and let them eat it themselves?

Cattle graze for a few hours per day

Generally, cattle graze for a few hours then spend the rest of their day resting and chewing their cud.

The majority of the time a ruminant (cattle, sheep, goats) is in the pasture should be spent relaxing and chewing her cud.

Quite often they prefer to lay down, once they have tanked up on grass.

If you see cattle eating all day, they are having a hard time getting all of the grass they need.

Look closely, are the cattle just headed to get a drink or some shade or are they still trying to finish lunch? If they are actively grazing all day, they need to be in a different pasture or get supplemental hay.

Cattle per acre is based on forage

This completely depends upon where you live, your forage (edible plants for the cattle) situation, the weather and most important of all your management!

I’m sure you were hoping for a specific number, but I can not mislead you. No one can give you this information for your farm.

They can give you a guess and tell you how it works for their place, but that’s it.

The more experience a farmer or rancher has and the more similar their place is to yours, the better their guess will be.

But no matter how you cut it, it’s still a guess. Your numbers will depend on what you do with your cattle and your land.

The difference between getting the most out of your land and cattle and not is all management.

For my area as an example

The common figure used around here (Ohio) is 1 cow/calf pair per acre. Look this up for your area to get an idea of the number, if you want to use it.

Really though, look around and see what other people in your area are doing and ask them.

Tip: If you really want the scoop on grazing in your area ask and look around to see what the other cattle raisers in your area are during the hardest time of the year to keep cattle on good grass.

This would be during the driest part of the year and in the very early spring/late winter when there is no sign of grass growing.

Any farmer or rancher who has good looking cattle and grass in the tough times is someone worth getting advice from!

What is the best grass for grazing?

Once again, this is area dependent. For us, orchard grass and timothy are super.

Fescue is not the greatest in the summer, when the cattle have other choices that taste better, but it is nearly unbeatable in the winter.

The best thing to do is graze what you have and use your management to favor the species you and the cattle want more of.

What? That seems like crazy talk! How do you chose what grows if you don’t plant it?

Easy, you create the conditions that the plants you want to grow in your pasture like to grow in.

Believe it or not, you are doing this right now, using your management, or lack of, to choose what grows. You just don’t realize it.

Look at the grass, or lack of grass, you have now.

What ever you are doing now is giving you what you see. Change what you are doing and you will change what you will be seeing in your pastures.

A close up of a spider web in the pasture. Spiders and other insects indicate a healthy environment.
A close up of some pasture grass with a spider web. Spiders webs in the pasture show that there is life all over this area. Spiders set up webs in places to catch bugs. Places with no webs mean no life. Spider webs and plentiful bugs mean tons of life, just as nature intends.

Cows stop eating when they are full

Cows want to fill up on grass so they can go lay down and chew their cud. Remember, eating the grass is just part of the deal, they also have to rechew it all to get it ready for digestion.

Think of a cow’s stomach as more of a storage tank, like the gas tank in your car. You fill up the tank then drive for a while before you have to fill up again.

It’s the same with a cow, she fills up with grass then has to spend most of her time chewing her cud, so her body can burn the fuel, (just like your car burns gas), before she can fill up again.

Cows can survive on grass alone

Definitely. This is completely normal for all ruminants, all over the world, not just cattle.

Ruminants are biologically designed to use grass and other forages as their sole source of food.

Of course, they will need the occasional salt lick and plenty of water, but as far as calories go, grass is all cattle need.

Granted, feeding an unnatural diet, like grain, to cattle will make they grow faster, but they do not need it.

That is like saying you need cake! Sometimes it can feel that way, but nutrition wise, you don’t.

What should you plant for cattle to graze?

This is area specific. Around here, we plant orchard grass, timothy, clover, rye, wheat, turnips, oats, and the list goes on.

Check out your local extension office or state agronomy guide. This will get you started off in the right direction.

Consider grazing whatever you have and changing your management to favor the plants you want to regrow.

Even “weeds” can feed cattle, as long as they are not poisonous of course!

The fastest way to see results will be to start your cattle grazing whatever is already growing.

If your herd grazes the pasture today then in 30-60 days, depending upon your rotation, they can graze it again, and so on.

Each time they go through the plants they will eat some and trample some. This will start to alter the growing environment to favor the plants you and your cattle want to see out there.

Realize that there is one big catch-you must rotate pastures to see results!

If you set stock, keep animals in one big pasture the whole year, the plants that you don’t want will be the ones that grow best!

Forage Facts: What Should I Reseed In My Hay And Pasture Fields? goes into specific forages and what each will do for you and your cattle.

Increase pasture growth with rest periods

The best way to increase the growth of your pasture is to have your cattle eat an area of grass then get them off of it and keep them off of it!

Quite often, we focus on the grass that is in the pasture when we turn the cattle in, when we should be focusing on the grass that is left in the pasture when we move the cattle out.

Your pastures will grow many times more forage if you let the grasses regrow completely before letting the cattle graze it off again.

Aim for moving the cattle once a day, twice is better if you can. I realize this will seem like too much work for some people, but keep in mind move fence now or buy more hay later. You’ll be doing one or the other!

Any dividing of the pasture is better than no dividing. If you could section off the pasture into quarters and rotate the herd through the sections, you will grow more grass than if they have access to the whole pasture for all year.

Start somewhere. You’ll get the feel for it and improve as you go.

Note: For anyone completely new, planned grazing will require portable electric fence.

Good news. cattle are easy to fence on a single strand of electric. I have an article here on fencing options. It is written for sheep, but all of the information will apply to cattle as far as cost and basic ideas.

Here is an example

Let’s say you decide to start using planned grazing for your herd.

What is planned grazing? Exactly what it sounds like, planning the pasture grazing pattern for your cattle.

You’ll rotate the stock through the grass as needed, based on weather, forage growth, etc.

You will need to do some experimenting to see what is the right amount of grass for the day for your cows.

Let’s say you need an acre’s worth of grass per day for the herd. (I just picked an easy number to use, you’ll need a number for your specific area.)

1 acre/day x 365 days= 365 acres of grazing per year for your cattle

So, that’s 365 acres total for your herd, right? Not exactly.

You forgot to account for the fact that the grass will regrow to grazing height and your cattle can “reuse” that acre multiple times per year.

Let’s go with a rotation of 60 days, since that is easy math. This means you can put the cattle on every acre you have one time every other month.

Now instead of the 365 acres we came up with earlier it is really 60 acres that your herd needs for the year.

1 acre/day x 60 days eat then rest/regrow cycle=60 acres grazing needed

Of course, there are other factors to consider, like the non growing season for your area being a biggie.

You can still rotate and really extend the growth of your pasture no matter how long the off season happens to be.

This is what we do. We would love to graze all year, but with the land available and the head we have we always end up needing hay for the winter.

So why do it? Moving fence all of the time can be a pain! Yes, it can, but so is buying hay.

Check out Greg Judy for a great example of grazing cattle.

Why does the grass regrow like this?

The reason this works is because the grass will regrow as soon as the cattle eat it or trample it. As long as you keep the herd off of the regrowth, the grass will grow back better and better each time.

When you look at the trampled grass, it can be easy to think that the cattle have “wasted” it. Not so.

The trampled grass is normal and will regrow better next round. The clean shaved look of all the plants eaten off to the ground (so nothing is “wasted”), that is abnormal.

Think of a herd of buffalo, they would eat what is there (and trample and poop on some) then move on to new grass. They don’t stay in one place and keep nipping it down to nothing, they walk to the grass with lots of growth left on it.

This is how nature has built grass to work.

Being eaten off then left alone to regrow for the grass is like you doing some weightlifting then letting your muscles repair, then lifting again. The rest, for your muscles and the grass, is where the magic happens.

If you let the cattle eat the regrowth, meaning you don’t move the herd, then the grasses they like, the ones they will continually nip off, will be out competed by the grasses they don’t like, the ones they leave to grow that you don’t want either.

In this situation, the growing advantage will be to the plants you and your herd do not like. Yikes!

I’m sure you are wondering why would the cattle do that? They are messing up a perfectly good pasture!

Somebody is messing up, that’s for sure! But it’s not the cattle, is the management (that’s you)!

Your cattle don’t think ahead, they have no plans of figuring out what they will be eating in the winter, if they are making you money or not, etc. You are the only one capable of thinking, the cows are just cows.

You and your management are the only two things that are the difference between making money and losing it.

The cattle want to eat. What they eat, when they eat it, where they eat it-those are all your decisions to make.

Do I have to rotate/plan grazing?

No, you don’t. However, like everything else in life, choices have specific and predictable results.

If you are okay with whatever, plant wise, growing in your pasture and the production ability of that land declining, then set stock your herd.

If you want to get the most grass for your cattle from the acreage you have available, while improving soil and plant health, you must move them and keep them off of what they have already eaten.

The plan doesn’t have to be elaborate. Any division is better than none. Just get started. I promise you, you will see a difference.

Ranching 101: Rotational Grazing Offers Many Benefits is a BeefMagazine.com article going over a rotational grazing plan and what it can do for your land.

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