Pasture Management


Better pasture management pays.

Feed costs represent the greatest percentage of total costs for cow/calf producers. Thus, focusing on opportunities to reduce feed costs will lend to the greatest cost control for cow/calf operators. Improving management of permanent pastures is crucial to profitability. Increasing land costs, commodity prices, and other inputs are all incentivizing better pasture management. Although it is nearly impossible to discuss all the factors that go into improving pasture management, here are some considerations and tips to make pastures more productive and profitable.

Rest keeps roots

Resting plants allows them to recover leaf tissue without robbing from the root base. Continuous grazing will result in animals overgrazing. Over grazing is a function of time. Animals will continue to graze down the most palatable plants. Overgrazing reduces yield, lowers root reserves, and makes plants more susceptible to drought. Plants need leaves to collect sunlight and roots to absorb water and nutrients.

Resting plants allows leaf tissue and root mass to sustain optimal photosynthesis and thus growth/yield. One of the best indicators that a plant has recovered is when the tips of the leaves of the plant are sharp. Also, stands that are quick to put out seedheads in the spring are likely more stressed and need less grazing pressure. Stands of forage that are less stressed will have more leaf to stem ratio and will maintain a vegetative state longer in the grazing season.

Residual: Take half, leave half

One of the best rules of thumb of a rotational grazing practice is to “take half, leave half.” This is a simple reminder to leave some leaf tissue to continue to gather sunlight. Another common saying from grazers is “grass grows grass.” Plants need leaves to gather sunlight for energy to grow. In an overgrazing scenario, leaves and roots are depleted and the plant takes much longer to regrow.


Weed Control

One of the most difficult parts of pasture management is weed control. Weeds are a part of the landscape; however, a well-managed pasture will have a diverse sward of palatable, desirable species, and limited weed pressure.

One of the most overlooked weed control strategies is simply managing forages to promote a dense, thick stand. This likely starts with proper stocking rates and resting forages. So, when trying to control weeds, think about managing for what you want and not managing against what you don’t want. 

Inevitably, you will have weeds in a pasture that need controlled.

  • Mechanical control via mowing can work well or herbicide control may be another option.
  • Spot spraying herbicides is likely the best option.
  • Broad-spectrum herbicide applications can remove wanted forage species when trying to eliminate the unwanted species.

Weeds can be signaling soil imbalances, excesses, and deficiencies. Many times improving soil fertility and correcting mineral imbalances or pH balances will help alleviate weed pressure. Overgrazing and continuous grazing practices will result in more openings in the stand and allow for increases weed pressure.


While it may seem obvious, low soil fertility is one of the biggest hurdles to maximizing forage production. Some soils are inherently low fertility. Soil testing is the best method of determining soil fertility.

  • If soils are low fertility it is beneficial to add fertility when cost effective.
  • Amendments may also need to be made to balance soil pH and mineral imbalances.
  • Overgrazing, haying, and soil erosion can all remove valuable nutrients from pastures.
  • Grazing animals deposit a large portion of the nutrients back onto the pasture in the form of manure. However, nutrients can be concentrated by the animal in areas of shade, water, and windbreak areas, thus leaving some areas deficient over time.

One of the most common ways to remove nutrients from pastures is through hay production. The table below shows removal rates.

Nutrient Removal By Selected Hay Crops
Crop Yield (tons) N P K Ca Mg S Cu Mu Zu
    Pounds per Acre
Alfalfa 6 350 40 300 160 40 44 0.1 0.64 0.62
Bluegrass 2 60 12 55 16 7 5 0.02 0.30 0.08
Coastal Bermuda Grass 8 400 45 310 48 32 32 0.02 0.64 0.48
Fescue 3.5 135 18 160   13 20      
Orchard Grass 6 300 50 320   25 35      
Red Clover 2.5 100 13 90 69 17 7 0.04 0.54 0.36
Soybean 2 90 12 40 40 18 10 0.04 0.46 0.15
Timothy 4 150 24 190 18 6 5 0.03 0.31 0.20

USDA Agronomy Handbook


Water, Shade, and Paddock Size

Distance to water, location of shade, and size and shape of the paddock can really determine grazing patterns. This is especially true during the summer when animals stay relatively close to water and shade. As a result, larger and more obtuse shaped pastures may be unevenly grazed. This alone can cause overgrazing to certain areas.

Square shaped paddocks that have water within 800 ft. of the boundaries will be the most evenly grazed. Managing the time the animals are in a certain area is the best way to improve forage utilization, while also allowing for appropriate recovery periods.

Continuous grazing results in roughly 30% pasture utilization. A 7-day rotation with 6 paddocks results in approx. 55% utilization and moving cattle once or more a day will result in a 75% utilization. A planned, adaptive grazing plan is needed by all grazers to ensure a successful grazing season that results in economical production of healthy animals

Download the Pasture Rent Fact Sheet.

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