Pasture Management

The resources of a livestock production unit include land, livestock, water and capital. Livestock producers are resource managers, and as such are faced with the challenge of producing the maximum amount of saleable product annually without destroying the long-term production potential of the farm or ranch unit. A good sound pasture management program is essential to meet the challenge.

Table of Contents


Good pasture management involves much more than simply turning stock onto forage. The ultimate purpose of pasture is to convert forage into a saleable animal product. To obtain maximum animal production, the needs of the animal as well as those of the plant (and their interaction of one upon the other) must be understood.  

Plant / Animal / Producer Interaction 

Many factors contribute to forage and livestock production. Good pasture management involves the control and application of these factors for maximum production.

Stocking Rates

The most important step in developing a pasture management program is to determine the proper stocking rate. Overstocking pastures is a common mistake made by livestock producers. Overstocking reduces gains both on a per-animal and per-acre basis and destroys the long-term productivity of the pasture. Understocking a pasture produces maximum gains per animal, but production per acre is reduced. The ideal stocking rate is one that falls between the maximum production per animal and the maximum production per acre. The stocking rate of a pasture depends upon the:

  • Vegetative cover of the pasture land
  • Rainfall amount and distribution
  • Fertility level and moisture-holding capacity of the soil
  • Grazing system used (rotational versus continuous' grazing)
  • Size and type of animal to be grazed

It becomes obvious when you consider the complexity of the above factors that the summer pasture program must be tailored to an individual farm unit according to land base, livestock, climate and labor requirements.

Assess your pastures at the end of each grazing season. The presence or absence of forage carry-over is the most important indicator of proper stocking rate and pasture condition. A 40 per cent carry-over of forage growth on native pastures is considered by researchers to indicate proper stocking rates.

The proper stocking rate for your farm or ranch can be determined by past experience, close observation of growth and a record of grazing performance on each pasture. Remember, the feed requirements of pasture animals increase as they grow, but forage production is not uniform and tends to decrease as the grazing season progresses. This important interrelationship between forage production and animal requirements must be considered in determining stocking rates.

Pasture Alternatives

The success of any livestock enterprise depends on an adequate supply of good pasture land. Pastures supply the cheapest source of gains for a livestock herd, and producers should strive to obtain maximum gains during the pasture season. Five pasture options available to Manitoba producers are:

  • Native Pasture
  • Tame Pasture
  • Annual Pasture
  • Complementary Pasture
  • Community Pasture

Consider the advantages and disadvantages of these five options in providing a source of feed for the total grazing season.

Native Pasture

Native stands are the major source of pasture for Manitoba cattlemen, making up 80 per cent of the total grazing area in the province.


  • low input costs


  • low carrying capacities
  • large acreage required
  • low rates of gain
  • short grazing season
  • low production/acre
  • limited management alternatives

 Table 1: Native Pasture Gains (lbs) - Interlake, indicates gains on native pasture obtained at three sites in the Ashern area

Yearling Steers 1974 1975 1980
Average weight on pasture




Average weight off pasture




Average gain




Average Daily Liveweight Gain (A.D.L.G.)




Days on pasture




Although providing the cheapest source of feed for livestock, native pasture does not assure a good supply for the entire grazing season. Growth peaks in June and tends to taper off rapidly throughout the summer.

Tame Pasture

Pasture improvement offers the greatest opportunity for increasing the income of livestock producers. With good management, land seeded to tame pastures can be the most profitable on the farm. Productive grass-legume pastures are essential for profitable production in today's livestock economy.


  • increased stock carrying capacities
  • extended grazing season
  • increased rates of gain
  • increased beef production per acre
  • smaller land base required


  • high input costs
  • increased management requirements

Table 2: Tame Pasture Production Results collected at grassland sites throughout Manitoba

Stock Ashern Binscarth Rossburn Beausejour St. Claude
  Yearling Steers Dairy Calves Bred Dairy Heifers
No. Head












Gain/head (lbs)






A.D.L.G. (lbs)






Live wt. gain/acre (lbs)






Tame pasture, under a proper grazing system, can assure a continuous supply of quality pasture throughout the entire grazing season.

Annual Pasture

Annual crops are often overlooked as a valuable source of feed for the pasture season. Under normal growing conditions, a spring-seeded annual such as oats can be grazed four to five weeks after seeding.


  • increased stock-carrying capacity (compared with native pasture)
  • excellent quality
  • good palatability
  • increased production per acre


  • annual cost input
  • does not provide early spring grazing

Stocking rates on annual pastures should be heavy enough to prevent the crop from heading out. Vegetative growth will continue until a killing frost.

Yearling steers were pastured on oats underseeded to tame forage at two Interlake sites. Results obtained are as follows.

Table 3: Annuals for Pasture (Oats)

Yearling Steers Teulon 1972 Ashern 1977
Grazing days 128 128
Acres/animal 1.58 1.23
Gain per head 309 304
A.D.L.G. 2.40 2.38
Beef produced/acre 198 247

Annual crops add flexibility to a pasture program; the crop can be grazed, cut as green feed or allowed to mature for grain and straw, depending upon circumstances. 

Complementary Pasture

A complementary pasture uses a combination of tame and native species, and the ratio used should provide for optimum forage growth and utilization. The complementary pasture system is adaptable to most farms and ranches in Manitoba, and makes use of a small acreage of tame seeded pasture grazed in rotation with a large native acreage.


  • increased stock-carrying capacity (over straight native pasture)
  • extended grazing season
  • increased gains
  • added flexibility in pasture program
  • increased production per acre


  • minor increase in inputs
  • increased management responsibilities

Table 4 shows results obtained at the Interlake grassland site at Ashern from 1978 to 1982. Between 190 and 200 yearling steers were grazed on a combination of 96 acres of tame pasture and 880 acres of native bush pasture.  

Table 4: Complementary Grazing System Results

Yearling Steers 1978 1979 1980 1981 1982
Average weight on pasture (lbs)






Average weight off pasture (lbs)






Average Gain (lbs)






Days on pasture






A.D.L.G. (lbs)






Acres/yearling steer
- Improved tame pasture
- Native pasture






Example of a complementary grazing schedule at the Interlake grassland site:

May 20 - June 21: 198 yearling steers grazed on 96 acres of tame seeded pasture.
June 22 - July 30: steers moved into 880 acres of native bush pasture.
August 1 - September 1:  steers moved back on 96 acres of tame seeded pasture.

The total days grazed varied from 122 to 134 over the five-year demonstration period (1978-82). (The length of the growing season is determined by temperature, rainfall and the time of the first killing frost).

Demonstrations have shown the complementary pasture system to give the highest returns for the additional fencing, fertilizer and management required.

Community Pastures

Community pastures are another option available to Manitoba livestock producers. Twenty-two are located in Manitoba, with a total carrying capacity of 40,500 head (mature cattle).


  • no capital cost for pasture development
  • no management responsibilities
  • allows for increased production on a limited land base
  • ideal pasture for non-breeders


  • limited availability
  • additional trucking costs
  • cash cost for services received

Table 5:  Community Pasture, Mulvihill

Yearling Steers



Number of steers



Average weight on pasture (lbs)



Average weight off pasture (lbs)



Average gain (lbs)



A.D.L.G. (lbs)



Days of pasture



Selecting a Grazing System

A grazing system can be defined as a schedule of when and where livestock are to graze during the pasture season. A successful grazing system is one that provides for the production of high quality pasture for the entire grazing season.


  • A grazing system must be flexible and simple.
  • A grazing system must be based on proper utilization of the forage plants and uniform distribution of the grazing animals.
  • No grazing system will eliminate the need for proper stocking rates.
  • No one grazing system is best for all farms.

Continuous Grazing

Under this system, livestock are turned onto a pasture and left there for the entire grazing season.


  • low labor requirement
  • minimum fencing required


  • low stocking rates
  • poor utilization of forage produced
  • livestock tend to overgraze selective areas, leading to weed invasion
  • system lacks flexibility
  • continuous grazing system is best suited to low-producing native pasture areas.

Rotational Grazing

This system involves dividing the pasture into separate pastures. The grazing livestock are moved from pasture to pasture throughout the grazing season according to forage growth.


  • provides for higher stocking rates
  • more efficient use of forage production
  • provides flexibility
  • surplus forage production can be cut for hay
  • alfalfa can be maintained in the tame pasture stand


  • additional fencing required
  • livestock must be moved according to schedule during the grazing season

A rotational grazing system is best adapted to seeded tame pastures or high producing native pasture.

To obtain maximum benefits from rotational grazing there are three important rules to follow:

  1. Move livestock to the next pasture before the animals have the opportunity to graze the grass twice during the same grazing period.
  2. Graze the pasture while plants are in a leafy stage of growth.
  3. Fertilize pastures regularly according to soil test recommendations.

NOTE: The number of pastures and length of grazing period on each pasture will vary from area to area the province

Complementary Grazing

This grazing system makes use of a small seeded acreage of tame pasture grazed in rotation with a larger native pasture acreage. The complementary grazing system should be designed to use a combination of tame and native pasture in a ratio that will provide for optimum plant growth and utilization of both the tame and. native forage species. The advantages and disadvantages of the complementary grazing system have been discussed under pasture alternatives.  

Strip Grazing

This is an intensified system of rotational grazing used mainly for dairy cattle. The pasture area is grazed in strips. This is accomplished by setting a moveable electric fence across the pasture to allow animals access to only enough grass for one day. Each day the fence is moved forward to allow stock access to a fresh supply of grass.


  • provides for higher stocking rates
  • assures daily supply of fresh forage
  • increases production per acre


  • additional labor required
  • requires uniform distribution of moisture throughout growing season

In both rotational and strip grazing, there is an advantage in separating producing and non-producing cows in the dairy herd. Producing cows should be the first to graze, followed by the non-producers as clean-up animals.  

Mechanical or Zero Grazing

Under this system forage must be cut daily by machine and hauled to the livestock. As in any pasture program, the forage should be used when it is in the early growth stage.


  • increased total forage production/acre
  • no losses from tramping or fouling
  • no opportunity for selective grazing
  • less fencing required


  • high cost system
  • high labor and machinery requirement

The additional cost of zero grazing may exceed the value of the increased production obtained. Data collected at the University of Manitoba indicates zero grazing is inferior to rotational grazing in terms of milk and butterfat production per acre.

Land base and herd requirements are equally important in deciding which system or combination of systems is best suited to an individual farm. Increased production can be realized by adopting a more intensive grazing management system. However, as management is intensified, the cost also increases. It is important to realize a dollar return from management. Farmers and ranchers must balance the additional cost of labor, fencing, fertilizer and machinery against profits when selecting a workable management system for their farms.

Livestock Management


The interrelationship of nutrition and disease control affect the profitability of livestock production; undernourished cattle are more susceptible to disease, and do not perform well either on a pasture program or in the feedlot. As well, unhealthy animals usually require additional nutrition. Gradual changes from the winter ration to the summer diet of grass eliminate digestive upsets and their secondary side effects.

A mineral and salt feeding program is as important on grass as in the feedlot. Amount consumed and type of mineral and salt needed varies throughout the province. A rule of thumb is free choice 1:1 stock mineral (ex: in the Interlake high copper and zinc 1:1 stock mineral) with free choice cobalt iodized salt. For individual area recommendations, check with your local veterinarian, Agricultural Representative or feed dealer.

Implanting is not a replacement for good management, but it is a fast, easy procedure that can provide a slight edge in gains for yearling cattle on pasture. Several types of implants are available, the choice will depend on local availability, cost, and ease of application. Remember, for best results, implants require proper application plus adequate nutrition and good health.

Fresh, clean water is a necessity for efficient pasture gains. Water should be in plentiful supply, of easy access, and close to the grazing area. Dirty, stale and muddy water-holes not only affect weight gain, but are also conducive to health problems.

Vaccination and Immunization

All pasture programs should include disease prevention. Health needs vary from one region to another but most will include a seven or eight way Clostridial vaccine; I.B.R. (either intranasal or intramuscular); growth promotant; and fly control.

In some areas it may be necessary to vaccinate for B.V.D. and treat for parasites. These two procedures are optional and should be discussed with the local veterinarian in your area. If buying thin, unthrifty cattle for pasture, consider giving them injections of Vitamin A, D and E.

Sanitation and Hygiene

Basic sanitation provides a healthy environment and should eliminate many sources of secondary infection. This includes:

  1. Regular Housekeeping: ex: proper storage of veterinary supplies; proper cleaning of needles and syringes after use; maintenance of handling facilities; and elimination of stress during handling.
  2. Good Water Supplies: ensuring that there is a clean, fresh supply, free of manure and other contaminating drainage.
  3. A Fly Control Program: using ear tags, oilers or dust bags will cut down stress on pasture cattle caused by biting flies.
  4. Quick and proper disposal of dead animals.
  5. Visitor Control: insist that all persons visiting the premises have clean boots, especially individuals who visit a large number of livestock operations (veterinarians, livestock buyers, sales people, government staff, etc.).
  6. Overgrazing means undernourished animals and the possibility of increased health problems.

Constant Surveillance

Unexpected problems can occur despite following all recommended management practices. Pastures should be checked daily if possible, as on-site observations will help to detect things such as foot rot, pinkeye, missing cattle, fence problems, water problems, etc. It also helps to have all cattle identified on an individual as well as herd basis. (tagging and/or branding).

Proper preparation of cattle for pasture and care during the grazing season results in increased breeding efficiency, best use of pasture, minimum death rate and optimum returns.