One essential calculation all cattle-owning homesteaders must perform is how much land they will need to keep their cows. This can be especially tricky, and expensive, because cows need more land than just about any other species of animal.
Too little land and they will be crowded, unhappy and underfed from pasturage. Too much land might be fine, but it’s going to cost you a bundle. So, how many cows per acre can you keep?
Generally, you’ll need at least 1 acre per cow. This varies depending on the size and breed of the cow, the fertility of the land, and whether or not any cows have calves in tow. Bigger cows and cows with calves will need closer to two acres.
There are ways to keep cows on a lot less land, but you generally aren’t going to be letting them roam on the pasture with these techniques.
If you want to give your cows a good life and let them graze naturally, you’re just going to need lots and lots of land.
That’s all there is to it, but don’t worry, because people have been doing this for a very long time. I’ll tell you a lot more about the land requirements of cows down below.
What Factors Should You Consider When Determining the Number of Cows per Acre
Before determining the number of cows per acre you can raise, consider the most important factors that will inform your calculations.
These include the size and type of land, rainfall, soil quality, the breed of cattle, and its purpose (beef or dairy). Understanding these factors is essential for an accurate determination, so we will unpack all of them in the following sections.
What is the Carrying Capacity of your Land?
Carrying capacity is a term that refers to a “measurement (actual or estimated) of how much forage a unit or piece of ground is able to produce in an average year,” per the USDA.
This metric is calculated based on factors such as soil type, topography, climate, vegetation, and water availability, and greatly informs the stocking rate of you land; how many animals are actually grazed on it per month.
Carrying capacity is expressed in terms of AUMs, or Animal Unit Months, each itself equal to the amount of forage that one cow (or any other specific animal) would consume in a month.
This is convenient shorthand to know when discussing or planning any land purchase or land management strategies.
Note that carrying capacity changes! It will change year over year depending on weather, management practices, and any blight or disaster that might affect it.
It is important to monitor and verify carrying capacity as needed to adjust your stocking rate!
What Breed of Cattle Are You be Keeping?
The breed and size of your cows will play an important role in determining how much land they need. Bigger cows need more land as a rule, all things equal. Smaller cows need less.
Will the Cows Be Raised for Milk or Meat?
One of the biggest factors in determining how much land you need. Dairy cattle require significantly more land and more room overall, as they produce milk daily and need constant access to high-quality food and water.
They’re also kept longer, meaning they need all of this for a longer period of time! Meat cattle, on the other hand, require less space in general but still need land for grazing and exercise. And, of course, they are rarely kept around as long for obvious reasons.
What’s the Quality of the Pasture on the Land?
The quality of your pasture itself plays a critical role in determining the number of cows per acre you can sustainably raise.
Better pasturage means more food and accordingly more nutrients are available to your cows, which can decrease the land requirements somewhat for reliably feeding cows.
To know for sure, the quality of your pasture must be determined by analyzing its composition and overall health.
Note that your land is not totally uniform! You cannot take a sample of a small part of the land and declare it so for the whole acreage.
You must carefully assess the entirety of the property to know for sure. Fail to do this and you could suffer, big time, as we will learn in a story I will tell you in just a bit.
What are the Forage Requirements Per Cow?
Cows need lots of food to maintain their health and productivity. But forage requirements vary considerably based on the cow’s age, weight, breed, and lactation (if applicable).
Generally speaking, cows need around 2-3% of their bodyweight in dry matter forage each day according to the USDA.
This translates to approximately 26-40 pounds of dry matter forage per day for a 1,300-pound cow, or around 1,100 pounds per month. Quite a lot of food!
Do Any Cows Have Calves?
Everyone knows babies need lots of resources, and cow babies are no different. If you have cows with calves, consider the additional space requirements needed.
Cows with calves generally need double the land since the calf will stay close to its mother for the first few months of life suckling milk, so mom needs even more to eat. Also, the calf will need its own pasturage once it starts to wean.
Something else to consider is that mom and baby will generally want to keep to themselves early on, so having a buffer zone of sorts is helpful.
And remember: even though the calf is so much smaller than an adult, it will still impact the carrying capacity of your land!
How Many Cows Can You Graze Rotationally Per-Acre?
Rotational grazing is a good idea for virtually every cattle owner who does not own a truly humongous property.
Rotational grazing refers to a land management practice involving dividing the pasture into smaller “paddocks” and rotating cattle between them periodically.
This allows for better utilization of the forage and promotes healthy regrowth, as well as reducing soil compaction and weed growth.
The number of cows you can graze rotationally per-acre will depend on factors such as the size of your paddocks, the number of paddocks, and the base quality of your pasture.
Use the size of a paddock as the baseline for determining the stocking rate. A good rule of thumb is still to graze one cow or pair of cows (mother and calf) per acre in a rotational grazing system.
Different Cow-to-Acre Ratios are Ultimately Based on Land Characteristics
The ideal cow-to-acre ratio is not set in stone and varies based on the characteristics of your land. For instance, the carrying capacity of your land will ultimately impact the stocking rates.
Assuming your analysis is good and you trust it, and you know your cows have enough room to move around and roam, there is no reason why you cannot put more cows that typical on a smaller parcel.
Do You Want Happier Cows? Give them More Room than they Need
If it is an option, strongly consider giving your cows more room than they strictly need. Providing your cows with extra room has a noted impact on their mood and productivity.
It is true that happy cows grow faster and make more, and better, milk.
The opposite is also true: When cows are overcrowded and stressed, they slow milk production and show poor weight gain. By giving your cows more room to roam, you can help reduce stress levels and promote overall health and well-being.
Additionally, allowing your cows to roam and graze freely over a larger area can help prevent overgrazing and subsequent soil erosion, leading to a more sustainable operation in the long run.
Some Real-life Experience, and Lessons Learned
Remember when I alluded to a story up above, one about doing your diligence when checking the carrying capacity of your land?
This is that story: When one of my neighbors some time back first started out on his modest cattle operation, he was beyond excited to use the large tract of land he purchased next to mine.
The land was more than enough for his small herd of ten Holsteins, around 22 1/2 acres.
However, he quickly came to regret his rushes analysis of the pasturage based only on the plushest (and closest) acres near the house, proper.
You can see where this is going: the nutritional content of the pasture was seriously uneven, with more than half of it being sparse, poor quality, slow growing and “stemmy” grasses and other plants. Very low nutrient stuff!
He soon found that he didn’t have nearly enough usable pasture land for his ten cows, and found himself having to provide lots of additional (and expensive) feed to keep them healthy and happy.
Not at all what he planned on! He wound up selling off several cows in despair, and then set about to slowly improve some of the “waste” acres- at even more cost!
The lesson is that you must pay close attention to your tests for every factor when making your stocking rate determinations for land: soil quality, fertility, sustainability, actual AUMs.
My neighbor and lots of other folks have learned the hard way: you shouldn’t have to!
Tim is a farm boy with vast experience on homesteads, and with survival and prepping. He lives a self-reliant lifestyle along with his aging mother in a quiet and very conservative little town in Ohio. He teaches folks about security, prepping and self-sufficiency not just through his witty writing, but also in person.
Find out more about Tim and the rest of the crew here.