Research »   Grazing Management

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Effective grazing management on pastures not only ensures high forage yield, sustainability, animal health and productivity, all of which impact cost of production, it also benefits the pasture ecosystem.  Innovations in pasture management give producers greater control to support the environment (e.g. biodiversity) but also allow them to better use pasture resources for food production. 

Pasture is a critical resource in the cattle industry. An effective management plan requires good understanding of pasture production, realistic production goals, effective grazing strategies and timely response to forage availability and environmental changes. Managing grazing lands so that they are productive and persist over time requires knowing when to graze certain species, if they can withstand multiple grazings/cuttings within a single year and how much recovery time is needed to prevent overgrazing (which is a matter of time not intensity).


Animal Health and Performance

grazing pasture management key facts for beef producers infographicPasture management can affect animal health. For example, some rapidly growing pastures lack certain dietary inputs, such as roughage, dry matter and various minerals that are important for good rumen function and maximum production. This can lead to animal health issues associated with mineral deficiencies, as well as scouring and bloat, which limit weight gain and in extreme cases can cause death.[1]

A study completed in 2006[2] showed that selection of genetically improved sainfoin varieties could produce a bloat safe legume that is more productive and better able to compete and persist in pastures. Legume persistence would also benefit from the development of grazing strategies that consider the critical growing periods of legume species. This would help to improve forage and soil quality, allow safer grazing of legume pastures, and improve animal performance.

Forage productivity has a direct impact on animal performance. A study by Doran et al. (1963) [3] conducted in central Alberta measured forage productivity and yearling steer weight gain of three pastures under three levels of fertility. The results show that under appropriate grazing management, rather heavy applications of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers will lead to substantial improvements in measured increments of animal productivity. Various studies have also showed that an annual yield of 1,365 kg (3,000 lbs) dry matter per acre can be achieved on a well-managed pasture. These same pastures can produce 225-275 kgs (500-600 lbs) of gain per acre in growing cattle. However, a lack of fertilizer and moisture combined with severe overgrazing can easily reduce the availability of dry matter to less than 454 kg (1,000 lbs) per acre.[4]

Long-Term Effects of Pasture Management

Pasture management has long term effects, as it can take years to recover from overgrazing. Grazing will favor the forage species that are most capable of withstanding grazing pressures. Overgrazing can make a stand vulnerable to invasive species and weeds (inedible, noxious or poisonous).

Appropriate pasture management helps ensure long-term sustainability of the grassland system.  A study by Johnston (1961)[5] compared the changes of vegetation character between lightly grazed and non-grazed treatments during a twelve-year period. Light grazing resulted in the development of a more varied flora with a greater total percentage basal area while non-grazing appeared to simplify the flora with a trend toward a cover consisting largely of rough fescue. A varied cover could conceivably be of value to the ecosystem especially during times of climatic stress. A twelve-year study by Schuman et al. (1999)[6] found that continuous season-long grazing results in a significant increase in the masses of soil carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) in the root zone of the soil profile and simulates C and N cycling from above-ground plant component to the soil. However, plant longevity can be reduced if the plants are re-grazed before they have sufficiently recovered from a previous grazing or cutting. If this process is continually repeated, a thinning or loss of the most desirable species occurs – providing openings in the ground cover for invasion of weeds or less desirable plant species (Jensen et. al).[7]  A forty-four year study (Dormaar et al. 1998)[8] of grazing on fescue grassland soil in Southern Alberta showed that heavy grazing pressure jeopardized the sustainability of the ecosystem by reducing fertility and water-holding capacity.

There have been a number of technologies that have increased the control producers have in pasture management. Technologies like electric fences and portable solar water systems have made it cost effective for producers to create smaller fields that allow for more frequent moves and a more consistent clip throughout the pasture. New products and management techniques give producers greater confidence in grazing alfalfa while controlling the risk of bloat and maximizing productivity.

Timing and Cost of Production

Grazing cattle too early in the spring on pasture will lead to poorer pasture conditions later on in the grazing season. It is estimated that grazing cattle one week too early on pasture in the spring will sacrifice three weeks of grazing in the fall.[9]

A study by Llewellyn L. Manske (2001)[10] shows that grazing native range before the grass plants reach the third-leaf stage causes reductions in herbage biomass production and subsequent reductions in stocking rate (2.86 acres/AUM vs. 4.04 acres/AUM) and animal performance (calf ADG 2.09 lb vs. 1.80 lb). These reductions result in lower economic returns ($7.02/acre vs. $0.75/acre) for a livestock operation. Herbage biomass production can be increased, along with stocking rate, animal performance, and net returns, when grazing is started after the third-leaf stage.

Herbage production can be further increased when grazing started after the third-leaf stage is coordinated with grass phenological growth to meet the biological requirements of the grass plants. With such management, stocking rate, calf average daily gain, calf gain per acre, net returns per cow-calf pair, and net returns per acre will also increase.

Developing a grazing plan

Developing a good grazing plan will help producers better utilize the pasture resources that they have. A grazing plan will also allow all workers or family members to be on the same page during the grazing season and understand what needs to be done to keep cattle and pastures healthy.

A grazing plan that matches animal numbers to forage yield is important in optimizing pasture and animal productivity. Stocking rate should be calculated based on soil and climatic conditions as well as the condition of forage stands of a specific pasture. In setting production goals, it is important to consider the economic return per acre rather than production per animal, and compare production per acre or per dollar invested into the pasture.[11]

Grazing system

A grazing system is the way in which the producer manages pasture resources to feed animals. A grazing system should balance livestock demand with forage availability, promote rapid pasture re-growth during grazing season as well as long-term pasture persistence.[12]  Grazing systems will vary with the climate, species and soil types. Grazing systems that are commonly used in Canada include: continuous grazing, rotational grazing, forward grazing, creep grazing, strip grazing, limit grazing, stockpile grazing and extended grazing.

A study by Bailey et al. (2006)[13] in West Virginia, US showed that grazing systems (continuous stocking versus rotational stocking of paddocks) had an effect on forage quality by influencing plant height and maturity. Continuously grazed pastures were shorter than rotationally grazed pastures and had lower Acid Detergent Fiber (ADF) and Calcium (Ca). The most important factor was herbage maturity, and therefore time of harvest is an important aspect in pasture management.

Managing pasture in drought

During drought conditions it is important to adjust the grazing plan, and possibly the grazing system to ensure pasture longevity. Pasture management that adjusts for drought conditions will impact production, and how cattle can be grazed, but plants that are healthy because of good soil fertility programs and good rest periods that preserve root reserves will respond quickly once the rains return following a drought.[14]


1. Meat and Livestock Australia. Nutrition. 

2. Iwaasa, Alan. 2006. Pasture management and productivity. BCRC Fact Sheet.  /e8f/factsheet.cfm/pasture-management-and-productivity-56

3. Doran, W. J. , G. H. Bowman, D. R. Walker. 1963. The Productivity of Fertilized Pastures in Central Alberta. Canadian Journal of Plant Science 43(2):188-194

 4. Alberta Agriculture. Grazing tame Pastures effectively.$department/deptdocs.nsf/all/agdex113?opendocument 

5. Johnston, Alexander. 1961. Comparison of lightly grazed and ungrazed range in the fescue grassland of southwestern Alberta. Canadian Journal of Plant Science 41(3):615-622 

6. Schuman, G. E., et al. 1999. Impact of grazing management on the carbon and nitrogen balance of a mixed-grass rangeland. Ecological applications 9(1):65-71. 

7. Jensen, Scott. Improved pastures.

8. Dormaar, Johan F. and Walter D. Willms. Jan 1998. Effect of Forty-Four Years of Grazing on Fescue Grassland Soils. Journal of Range Management 51(1):122-126

9. Ontario Agriculture. Grazing Management.

10. Manske, Llewellyn L. 2001. Grazing Before Grass Is Ready Report. Dickinson Research Extension Centre:$Foragebeef/frgebeef.nsf/all/frg39/$FILE/Pasturegrazingbeforegrassready.htm

11. Pasture Management.$foragebeef/frgebeef.nsf/all/frg39

12. Ontario Agriculture. Grazing Management.

13. Bailey, B. et al. December 2003. Pasture Forage Quality in West Virginia. West Virginia Extension Service  Fact Sheet

 14. Ontario Agriculture. Conserving Pasture Production During Dry Conditions.


Learn More:

Video: What Really Matters in Grazing Management - Jim Gerrish
Western Beef Development Centre

Planning Pastures: Beef Research School episode
Beef Cattle Research Council

Pasture Production
Ontario Ministry of Agriculture Food and Rural Affairs

Conserving pasture production during dry conditions
Ontario Agriculture

Grazing tame pastures effectively
Alberta Agriculture$department/deptdocs.nsf/all/agdex113?opendocument

Pasture Management$foragebeef/frgebeef.nsf/all/frg39

Grasslands Beneficial Management Practices:


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This topic was last revised on August 14, 2018 at 04:08 AM.

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