SITE CONTENT: Pasture
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Pastureland is typically that land, left fallow or actively grazed, that is used by farmers and ranchers for their stock on the hoof: primarily cattle, hogs, sheep, and horses. On the earth today, about half of all land is grazed in one form or another. Hay land, range land, and grazing area make up about half of the U.S. landmass, according to the United State Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service.
The ARS also notes that more than 85% of the 307 million acres of publicly owned lands in the western United States are grazed. These lands, the plants that grow on them, and the domestic and wild animals that graze them, all contribute to the environmental, economic, and social well being of our nation. The estimated annual value of U.S. hay production alone is $11 billion, third in value behind corn and soybeans, and exceeding the value of wheat, vegetables, cotton, and non-citrus fruits. Livestock numbers vary with time, but grazing lands are usually home to more than 100 million cattle and eight million sheep, supporting a livestock industry that annually contributes $78 billion in farm sales to the U.S. economy.
Grazing lands also function as watersheds. Maintaining adequate supplies of clean water for irrigated agriculture, industrial uses, and urban areas is critical to society, and much of our water supply originates as rainfall or snowmelt on range land watersheds, according to the ARS.
Pastures represent a largely untapped resource for farmers. According to the University of Wisconsin Extension Service, more than a quarter of the Midwest's agricultural land is in some form of pasture. Yet 80% of these pastures are in poor condition with weed and erosion problems. Most pastures are continuously grazed, which results in the lowest possible pasture yields, since the forage is never allowed to recuperate from grazing. Farmers can actually make a profit from grazing if they use proven pasture management techniques such as rotational grazing. Under rotational grazing only one portion of a pasture is grazed at a time, allowing the remainder to rest. The timing of the rotations must be adjusted to the growth stage of the forage. Although this requires additional fencing and a higher level of management, the end result is more money in the farmer's pocket and a lighter touch upon the land.
Agricultural Research Service
Pastures for Profit: A Guide to Rotational Grazing
Pasture Management & Grazing Resources, U. of Wisconsin
Purdue University Pasture & Forage Fun Page