Pasture Utilization

Pasture is an excellent low cost means of feeding livestock, but requires proper management of the forage and the livestock. The forage must be managed to optimize growth, and the livestock must be managed to optimize utilization. Your goal as you manage your pastures is to grow as much grass as possible and have it consumed at the point of optimum nutrition and quantity with minimal waste. How much of the pasture growth is actually eaten and utilized by the grazing livestock is going to influence the success and profitability of your pasture business. Producing a lot of growth is of little benefit it is not utilized by livestock.

Factors Affecting Utilization

  • Forage that is over-mature will not be effectively utilized. Mature, tall grass is hard for the animals to bite off and also difficult to digest.
  • Forage that is too short (less than 5-7 cm) does not allow the animal to get a big bite. They spend extra time walking to get enough forage.
  • Forage that is contaminated by feces or urine will not be eaten.
  • Forage that is tramped or laid on is less likely to be eaten.
  • If there is a wide choice of plants to graze, the most palatable will be eaten and the less desirable will be left behind. These plants then have a chance to continue growing, and over time will dominate the pasture.

Ways To Improve Utilization

  • Minimize the area and amount of grass that is available at any one time. There will be a higher proportion of fresh grass available to the animal.
  • Smaller paddocks reduce walking and tramping, which means more time for grazing and resting.
  • Provide water in the paddock. This minimizes the amount of time spent away from the pasture and not eating.
  • If there are significant manure patties that are not breaking down, consider harrowing to spread these patties out and speed up the breakdown. Cattle eating grass that is optimum for performance will have loose manure that will not be in dried patties.
  • If there are weeds and mature plants, clipping can improve utilization.
  • Livestock grazing a "new" or "fresh" paddock focus on grazing, become full quicker and will spend more time resting rather than wandering looking for another bite of palatable grass.
  • Intake of high quality forage is much better than low quality. Higher Acid Detergent Fibre (ADF) decreases intake because of slower digestive passage.

Number of Paddocks and Frequency of Moves

Factors that influence pasture utilization are:

  • the number of paddocks, and
  • the frequency of moves.

From the Purdue Extension Forage Field Guide:

  • continuously grazed pasture will result in 40% utilization of the forage
  • a 4 paddock system will result in 45% utilization
  • an 8 paddock system will have about 60% utilization
  • a 12 paddock system will have about 65% utilization
  • moving to a 24+ paddock system will bring the utilization rate up to about 75%.

This is a huge increase in productivity of your pastures, almost doubling it.

Increasing the number of paddocks allows you to increase the frequency of moves to fresh pasture.

From the Purdue Extension Forage Field Guide:

  • moving every 3 days to fresh pasture will give a 70% utilization rate,
  • moving every 7 days reduces the pasture utilization rate to 50%, and
  • 14 day moves results in only 40% utilization of the pasture.

The number of paddocks and frequency of moves go together. More paddocks allow for more frequent moves.

This results in a longer rest period for the grass to recover from the previous grazing, and more growth of fresh grass for the next grazing.

Take Half and Leave Half

These are seasonal utilization rates. At each grazing pass, the best results are achieved when you have the livestock remove about 50% of the available forage to allow the plant to quickly recover and re-grow. There is minimal impact on the root system when grazing about 50% of the top growth, but when more than 50% is removed the impact on the roots is much more significant.

The more paddocks you can organize for each group of livestock, and the more frequent the moves to a fresh paddock, the better the performance you will see from your pastures.


For more information:
Toll Free: 1-877-424-1300
E-mail: ag.info.omafra@ontario.ca