Stocking Rate Essay

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S tocking rate is the amount of land that may be used to graze cattle or other herbivores for a specific period of time. The stocking rate varies due to factors such as the fertility of the land, the kind of vegetation that flourishes on it, the ability of the grazed vegetation to recover from grazing, the food value of the vegetation, and the long term damage that may occur. The stocking rate is a tool of grazing management. In the wild, herbivores move about a range so that their grazing does not systematically reduce whole areas. However, in animal husbandry operations grazing animals are confined to an area that can soon be overgrazed if management limits are not assigned to how long they stay in a particular pasture. Grazing management is an art that seeks maximum production returns from the balancing of land, labor, capital, the number of animals, and the amount of feed associated with stock production.

The goal of grazing management is to gain a profitable return of the investments made. At the same time the grazing land must either maintain or improve its productivity. There are several principles to grazing management, with probably the most important being stocking rates. Stocking rates are managed forms of carrying capacity. Grazing managers (ranchers, owners, and cowhands) must calculate the number of animals that can graze an area for a given period of time without creating grazing pressure. The relationship between the two is the ratio of forage demand to forage supply (carrying capacity). The concept of “animal unit month (AUM)” is widely used to determine the stocking rate. It provides the approximate amount of forage that a 1,000-pound cow with a calf will eat in one month. The amount of forage consumed in a month is 800 pounds of dry (not green) weight. This standard can be converted into an “animal unit equivalent.” For a sheep the AUM is 20 percent of a cattle AUM. This standard measure allows grazing managers to calculate easily the number of animals that an area of rangeland can carry.

Forage supply is the vegetation that can be eaten, but which will still allow the plants on the pasture of range to quickly recover so that future forage production is not diminished. Future forage production includes such factors as the future species of plants that will be available. All grass or forage is not created equal. In the eastern United States the grasses grow lush compared to the skimpy grasses of the west. However, the food value of the mineral-rich western grasses is often much higher than the richer-looking, greener grasses of the east. In the eastern United States, the question of stocking rate is asked in terms of how many cattle to the acre. In the west, the stocking rate question is asked in terms of how many acres to a steer, bull, or cow.

Contemporary ecological science has raised questions about the straightforward measurement of stocking rates in recent years. A greater appreciation of the nature of grasslands suggests that they function in a state of disequilibrium, given to swift and unpredictable changes in condition or state with or without grazing, and a concomitant sense that there may be no meaningfully objective way to measure stocking rates at all. The management implications of these scientific insights, however, have not been fully embraced by regulators, who require clear and simple metrics to inform enforcement and decision making.


  1. Ricard A. Battaglia, Handbook of Livestock Management (Pearson Education, 2006);
  2. H. Behnke and I. Scoones, eds., Range Ecology at Disequilibrium: New Models of Natural Variability and Pastoral Adaptation in African Savannas (Overseas Development Institute, 1993);
  3. Robert K. Lyons and Rich Machen, Stocking Rate: The Key Grazing Management Decision (Texas Agricultural Extension Service, 2001);
  4. Andre Viosin, Grass Productivity (Island Press, 1988).

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