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Understanding carrying capacity and stocking rates in grazing systems

Long-term carrying capacity

Long-term carrying capacity is the average number of animals that a grazing area can be expected to support over a set period (e.g. 10+ years).

To assess long-term carrying capacity, consider:

  • areas and condition of land types on the property
  • climate
  • evenness of grazing (including preference of land type, plant species, and distance to water)
  • tree densities
  • goals for animal production and land condition.

When stocking to a long-term carrying capacity, there is potential for over-grazing in some years and under-grazing in others. Over-grazing can increase weeds, and decrease pasture growth and animal productivity. Under-grazing can increase fire risk and missed opportunities to increase production from the paddock.

Short-term carrying capacity

Short-term carrying capacity is the number of animals that a grazing area can support over a shorter time (e.g. week, month or season). To assess short-term carrying capacity, consider:

  • pasture on hand and expected growth
  • forage quality and desired animal performance
  • end of dry season pasture yield.

Comparing long-term and short-term carrying capacity

Long-term and short-term carrying capacities usually differ, but they are closely linked because the average short-term carrying capacity over 10 years should equate to the long-term carrying capacity. The management of one affects the other.

See the table below for a comparison of long-term and short-term carrying capacity over a 10-year period.

Combining long-term carrying capacity estimates and forage budgeting

Chart comparing long-term and short-term carrying capacity.

Note: Image sourced from Stocktake Plus.

Stocking rate

A grazing area's stocking rate is different, but related to, its carrying capacity. Stocking rate refers to the actual number of stock per unit area at a particular time.

Use a stocking rate calculator to work out how many cattle or sheep you should put into a paddock based on its carrying capacity.

Find out more about stocking rates, including identifying and implementing stocking rates.

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