Livestock Class Considerations

Integrating livestock and cropping systems can work for any kind of livestock, and can provide many benefits, but the planning considerations differ depending on whether you’re grazing beef or dairy cattle, sheep and goats, or swine. Highlights are below, and you can learn more in this factsheet.

cover of fact sheet showing grazing cattle

Many livestock owners graze mature cows or cows with calves. Using crop fields to graze corn stalks after grain harvest is a popular management practice in many places around the country. For many farms and ranches this coincides with the middle third of gestation, when the cow has the lowest nutritional demand. At this stage of production, she is not lactating and can be maintained on minimal quality forage.

The main goal of grazing stocker or grass-finishing cattle is to promote profitable weight gain. Stocker and grass-finishing cattle can integrate very well with cropping systems. Using stocker cattle to graze wheat fields in the southwestern United States is very common. High-quality annual forages grazed at the correct stage can promote high rates of weight gain and can be used to finish cattle. Much of the future growth in demand for grass-finished cattle will likely be supplied by cattle finished in grazing programs integrated into cropping systems.

Sheep and goats (small ruminants) have significant potential to integrate into an existing cropping system. Small ruminants have the advantage of being easily transported to new sites. Furthermore, they can readily be finished to market weight on only forages.

Interest in raising hogs in outdoor systems continues to grow. Although hogs cannot utilize forage as efficiently as ruminants, forages can be an integral part of their diet as long as supplemental feed grains are available. The need for supplemental feeding can complicate the decision to integrate swine grazing into a cropping system.

In most situations, grazing cropland with lactating dairy cows will not be a viable option. A cover crop with high nutritional quality that is close to the barn may present an opportunity. But in most situations the logistics and time involved in moving lactating cows two times each day to the barn for milking will be prohibitive.

Cover crop forages can provide a low-cost feed source to early dry cows that are at least four weeks away from calving, as their nutrient requirements are relatively low compared to lactating cows.