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Stocking Rate Rant

by Dave Pratt

A Ranching For Profit School alumni sent me a paper published by the Society for Range Management on calculating the optimum stocking rate. The authors crunched 14 variables through 1o equations to reach the conclusion that the optimum stocking rate is somewhere between a low rate that maximizes per/head performance and a higher rate that maximizes production per acre.  Nowhere in the variables or formulas did they account for carrying capacity, the value of leaving cover, the influence of stockmanship and forage quality on animal performance, or many other things that impact stocking rate and animal performance. The authors acknowledge that they ignored “elements that may be important.”

That may be important?!? How can you have a credible conversation about stocking rate without even mentioning carrying capacity?  How can you have an intelligent discussion about animal performance without addressing stockmanship or forage quality?

Animal performance is not just a matter of the quantity of forage available in a paddock, it is also an issue of forage quality.  Animals tend to eat the most palatable and nutritious plants and plant parts the first few days they are in a paddock. The longer animals stay in a paddock the worse the quality of the remaining feed, the lower their intake and the poorer the resulting performance.  That’s one reason why animal performance can suffer even when there is plenty of feed left in a paddock. It is also why producers using cell grazing keep the graze periods short. Short graze periods improve the consistency of quality and quantity available to the animal and better performance.  Of course moving animals more often means that stockmanship skills are even more important than on a conventionally run ranch.

Once we’ve shortened the graze periods then increasing the stocking rate should have very little impact on performance until the stocking rate exceeds the carrying capacity, At that point you’ve got bigger issues to worry about than poor stock performance, namely; the long-term damage to the productivity of your land from overstocking.

You don’t need 14 variables and a 10 formulas to tell you how to stock your ranch.  You need to know the carrying capacity. Of course carrying capacity is a moving target.  It changes annually and seasonally. So there are two big stocking rate questions we all have to answer:

  1. What is my carrying capacity?
  2. How should I use that capacity?

For year-round grazing operations, at least one seasonal enterprise is essential.

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