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Range & Pasture


Cows Grazing in Pasture

Pasture is land where the primary vegetation produced is grasses, clovers and other forbes (herbaceous plants) for grazing. Maine’s climate during the growing season is well-suited to pasture production. These lands provide forage for beef cattle, dairy cattle, sheep, goats, horses and other types of domestic livestock. Many species of wildlife also depend on these lands for food and cover. Well-managed pastures are healthier and more productive than unmanaged pastures, and are more resilient to changes in climate, such as drought. Well-managed pastures may also provide a cutting of hay on some portion of them, or may be “stockpiled” for late-season grazing.

NRCS works with producers to protect natural resources and improve pasture productivity. A typical farm pasture plan includes a prescribed grazing plan to ensure that pastures are not over-grazed, and may also include some infrastructure practices to facilitate grazing management. Fence may be used to exclude livestock from sensitive areas and water bodies and/or to facilitate pasture rotation and management. Watering facilities, animal trails, and improved heavy use areas may be planned when and where they are appropriate.

The way a pasture is managed has a profound effect on its ability to produce both quantity and quality of feed. The management and condition of the pasture also has an effect on the surrounding resources and environment. Over-grazed pastures have higher rates of precipitation runoff during storm events. This means, for instance, that much-needed summer rain does not infiltrate into the root zone where it could be utilized by pasture plants that may really need it. In addition, runoff from unmanaged pastures can contribute significant sediment, nutrients and pathogens to receiving water bodies.

Central to a productive pasture is the fertility and pH level of the soils. Without a pH in the appropriate range, plant nutrients are not available for the forage plants to uptake. A Soils Test will provide this information, along with lime and fertility recommendations. For more information, see Nutrient Management.

Pasture Management

The keys to good pasture management are:

  1. Having the appropriate quantity of livestock for the size and production capacity of the acres being grazed; also known as the appropriate stocking rate, or forage/animal balance.
  2. Implementing a rotational grazing system based upon forage rest and recovery.

An NRCS Prescribed Grazing Plan provides a starting point for developing a grazing system. A planner will help the producer to estimate the amount of forage need for the desired number and type of animals, the appropriate paddock size for the desired grazing period, and the total acres of grazing land needed for the system. It is to be emphasized that it is only a starting point. In practice, some things will need to be altered, especially as time goes on and a pasture responds to the new management.

  • Good rotational pasture management is based upon using target grazing heights and/or physiological stage of the pasture forages to determine when and where to move animals. A rotational system allows forages to recover prior to each subsequent grazing.
  • Pastures are divided into smaller units, or paddocks, and animals are moved into a fresh paddock at one- to seven-day intervals depending upon livestock species and lifestage, forage regrowth rate, and the producer’s availability to move animals. Paddocks are sized to provide the needed amount of feed for the desired grazing period length.
  • Target grazing forage heights are between 6 and 12 inches; ideally before the plants become stemmy and too mature to provide nutritious feed. Animals are removed from a paddock when ½ of the leaf matter is removed. When more than 50% of leaf material is removed during a grazing period, root growth is significantly impacted, plant recovery is slower, and total productivity of the pasture falls. 
  • The pasture manager should resist the urge to allow animals to “clean up” as much of the forage as possible before moving the herd to the next paddock. The leafy forage that is left behind will generate more growth more quickly than forage that is grazed to a point where only stubble remains. Leaves are the plants’ solar collectors, which generate energy from the sun. When they are removed, plants must utilize stored energy, which weakens them.

Two adages for graziers to manage by:

“It takes grass to grow grass.”

“Take half, leave half.”

Of note:

  • Smaller animals such as sheep are generally not expected to graze forage that is taller than 6-8 inches.
  • Goats, although smaller like sheep, are browsers by nature, and may prefer very tall plants, flowering plants, some weeds, and brushy vegetation when they can get them.
  • Livestock are more susceptible to internal parasites when they graze down shorter than 4 inches.

Maine Grass Farmers Network (MGFN)

University of Vermont Pasture and Grazing Management

Grazing Management - Grazed and Ungrazed Pastures



Photo:  Excellent grazing management.  
(Left) Residue left after animals are removed.  (Right) Next paddock ready to be grazed.