cattle eating grass

What is Pastoral Farming?

In a nutshell, pastoral farming is all about producing livestock, unlike arable farming, which focuses on producing crops. Animals are raised in pasture-based systems (grass-fed) for profit.

With pastoral farming, stock are managed year-round with key farm events like mating, calving/lambing etc., occurring at the same times each year. Generally, pastoral farms have a higher labor input than arable farms due to more hands-on management.

Examples of Pastoral Farming

While there are many examples of pastoral farming; dairy, sheep, beef, deer and goat farming are the main ones.

Dairy cattle are farmed for their milk, sheep for their wool and meat, beef for their meat, deer for their velvet and meat and goats for their milk and meat.

Mixed farming is a term that refers to farms that produce both livestock and crops.

Intensive vs. Extensive Pastoral Farming

Pastoral farming tends to have two 'types' intensive and extensive.

Intensive pastoral farming refers to farms with high inputs (think labor, capital etc.) to obtain equally high outputs (production and income). Most modern-day traditional farms fall into this category. Intensive farming is very much about optimizing the productivity and profitability of land.

Extensive pastoral farming is the complete opposite. Extensive farms are often large in scale with very low inputs (management, capital etc.) and inevitably lower outputs. A great example of extensive farming is cattle ranches in central Australia, where there are a handful of farmworkers and cattle are primarily left to roam across large areas.

Innerworkings of Pastoral Farming

farmers tending to cattle

Pasture management

Pasture management is one of the main foundations of pastoral farming. There are multiple methods for pasture management. The adoption of these methods will depend on the type of livestock, farm infrastructure (fences, yards, etc.), total land area and topography of the land.

While pasture management can be complicated, here are the basics:

  • Ensure livestock have access to fresh drinking water at all times
  • Make sure grass is around 4-6 in. (10-15 cm) before stock graze
  • Move stock when grass is around 1.5-2 in. (4-5 cm)
  • Control weeds
  • Apply fertilizer where and when appropriate
  • Don't overstock
  • Supply supplementary feed (hay, silage etc.) during feed deficits or to extend grazing rotation

Total required feed for any animal will change depending on: season, whether they're in calf/lamb, mating etc. and adjust feed supplied accordingly.

Effect of Topography on Pastoral Farming

Which livestock are produced on a farm comes down to land-use suitability. Soil, rainfall and topography play a big role in this. Pastoral farming is popular in areas that are not suitable for cropping -i.e. Hill country farms. Grass can grow anywhere if appropriately managed and, unlike crops, can tolerate wind and rain better.

The exception to this rule is dairy farms. Dairy cattle are typically farmed on flat to rolling country to accommodate the more intensive pasture management they do to reach milk production targets (irrigation, fodder crops etc.).

Sheep, beef and deer, on the other hand, are often farmed on the hills. Deer and sheep are the ideal stock type to run on steep hills as their small frame, and nimble hooves mean they can navigate the tricky terrain with ease. Beef cattle will tend to frequent slightly easier hill country.

rocky and hilly pasture
This land is ideal for pastoral farming because it is not suitable for crops, but still grows grass suitable for raising livestock.

Another critical factor that will determine which livestock a farmer will farm is market demand for that livestock product in the area.

Conclusion

While pastoral farming has some challenges; environmental, biosecurity, animal welfare, high labor inputs and volatile markets, it's a form of agriculture that plays an integral part in feeding the world's population and providing raw materials for everyday products. It's also providing jobs and incomes streams for economies around the world.

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