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How Many Cows Per Acre On A Small Farm

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Cows are large animals, so is raising them on a small scale really practical? Our answer – YES! We’ll break down the factors surrounding the question of, “How many cows per acre?” and share how we raise cows on our 5-acre farm.

cows on pasture with sunrise

General Rules of Thumb

The general rule of thumb is 1:1. That means one cow per one acre of pasture. Keep in mind that is a minimum requirement. A cow/calf pair will typically require closer to two acres.

The daily utilization rate for livestock is also commonly referenced. That number is 4%, meaning livestock need to intake 4% of their body weight daily.

two cows grazing in the front yard

Both of these rules of thumb are helpful to reference when considering how many cows per acre. But, they should not be taken as absolutes. Many factors around your management, your cows, and your land will influence the stocking rate (number of cows) on your land.

Management Factors

What will they eat?

A cow’s natural diet is grass. Grains are commonly supplemented or substituted. 100% grass-fed cows will obviously require more pasture than cows being fed 100% grain or a combination.

For the purposes of this post, we will assume we are talking about 100% grass-fed cows. This is the healthiest option for the cow, environment, and end consumer.

Grazing method

A common grazing method on a small scale is to simply have one, or a couple, larger paddocks the cows have access to graze in. This method does not require much management. However, you run the risk of overgrazing. The quality of pasture will also likely degrade over time since grasses won’t have necessary recovery times.

Rotational grazing is another option. This method uses smaller paddocks to systematically move your herd around your pasture. Cows are typically only on a section of pasture a day or two to prevent overgrazing and not brought back to that same section until it is fully regrown. The benefit is higher quality pasture for your cows. It also keeps your pasture healthy long-term. The downside is that rotational grazing can take significant time and management.

3 cows grazing in a field

Are there other animals grazing?

There can be many benefits to multi-species grazing. Sheep and goats, for instance, will graze and forage differently than a cow. Incorporating other ruminants like these can help to maximize your pasture. But again, it will impact how many animals you can have per acre.

For sheep, the general rule of thumb is 7 sheep per acre. For goats, it is 10 goats per acre. If other animals are being raised alongside your cows, this will need to be factored in.

Cow Factors


A 1,400 lb. cow will have significantly higher intake needs than an 800 lb. cow. This is where the 1 cow per acre rule of thumb breaks down. Smaller cattle are likely better suited for a smaller scale farm or homestead than larger.

cow with pretty sunrise


Different breeds will convert their food to weight and energy at different rates. For instance, Angus cattle have larger intake requirements due to their higher muscle mass. Smaller breeds like Dexter cattle are known to consume less.


Dairy cattle breeds are also known for needing to consume higher quantities to account for the energy requirements needed to produce milk. Lactating dairy cattle are often said to need 2 acres of land per cow. You can learn more about our simple way we raise a Jersey milk cow and her calves in our post, Family Milk Cow Basics.

calf nursing off jersey mama

Are they pregnant?

Growing a baby requires a lot of energy and nutritional support. If your cow is growing a calf, her intake needs will be higher than normal. If raising the calf, you will also need to consider the added pasture requirement for the calf as they transition from milk to eating grass.

Land Factors

Pasture Quality

The quality of your pasture will affect how many cows you can have per acre. To give your cows a more complete nutritional profile, selection and diversity of plant life in your pasture matter. For instance, Alfalfa, Rye Grass, and Bermudagrass are higher energy grass options than others. Soil quality and density of your pasture will also impact the overall quality of your pasture and much forage your cows have available. This basic pasture inventory calculator can help estimate how much forage is available in your pasture.

jersey milk cow and calf grazing

Land Makeup

You may have several acres of straight up pasture. But you may also have some woods, water features, steep grades, pole buildings, or other features on your land that impact the grazing capacity. When figuring how many cows your land can support, you will want to consider the full profile of your land and how much total pasture your cows will have available to them. For instance, wooded areas will provide some forage, but it will not equate to what a healthy pasture will provide.


Your growing zone will affect the number of days your cows can be out on pasture. Northern climates will have less days for grazing than southern climates. Your growing zone will also determine your non-growing season or winter when your cows will be off pasture. Unless you have additional acres designated for cutting hay, you will need to budget for purchasing hay for your animals through the winter. We live in zone 5 and typically give our cows hay November through April.

three cows eating hay

Risks of having too many cows per acre

Pasture requires a minimum of 30 days to recover before it is ready to be grazed again. Often times, more like 40-50 days are required for a full recovery. Too many cows will likely mean your pasture will not have adequate time to regrow between grazing sessions. This will deplete your pasture and soil over time and diminish the quality of your pasture. It can also mean a buildup of too much manure which can smother pasture or create concentrations of nutrients that are too high for your pasture to grow optimally.

Ideas to maximize grazing on a small scale

On our homestead, we have 5 acres total with a 3.5 acre pasture and a .5 acre permanently fenced paddock. We have a family milk cow and, depending on the season, either one or two of her calves along with her. The cows are in the permanently fenced pasture over the winter and we begin rotationally grazing them in the back field typically in May.

Rotational Grazing

Utilizing rotational grazing is the number one way to maximize your pasture. This involves creating small paddocks with temporary fencing that your cows will only spend 1-2 days in. The key is managing the system closely enough to give the pasture enough time to recover fully before it is grazed again. When managed properly, (1) your cows are getting peak forage and nutrition, (2) they will also be adding nutrients back to the soil through their manure, and (3) their efficient grazing will be actively assisting in the regrowth cycle necessary for grasses to flourish.

family milk cow being milked by hand

Temporary Fencing

A portable fencing system allows you to be very adaptable and efficient with your fencing. We have several sections of electro-netting fence with a solar fence energizer. We can literally set this up anywhere on our property. 

For example, we have a young orchard area that is typically fenced off so the cows don’t destroy our trees. However, I am able to set up the electro-netting in the grassed alleys between the rows of trees. The trees are protected and the cows get extra forage.

Utilize ALL Your Land

There are ways to think creatively about grazing your cows or animals. Our home sits on roughly 1 acre with mostly grass surrounding it. Typically, this area had been off-limits to the cows. However, this past spring the back pasture was late to begin growing. So, we set up our moveable fencing in our front yard to buy the back pasture more time. This was a win-win because the cows got extra forage and I didn’t have to mow!

Start Small and Know Your Land

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to how many acres are needed for a cow. The factors we’ve mentioned are unique to your cows and land, and how you manage all of it.

Consider starting below what you calculate or think your land can handle and build your herd size from there. After a season or two of observing – how quickly your pasture recovers, how much your animals consume, how your systems work and what can be improved – you will have a much better idea of what is appropriate for your unique situation.

Overstocking too soon can lead to the quality of your pasture being continually degraded. Or, it may also mean significant and unanticipated cost to supplement your cows with hay or other feed throughout the growing season.

Start small, learn from your animals and land, and work your way into the right ratio of how many cows per acre your setup can support.

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    1. Yes! I often say that manure is the most valuable resource we have on our farm! The poop just composts and breaks down over time adding nutrients and organic matter over time. When pasture is continuously grazed the manure tends to pile up in one area, which isn’t that healthy for pasture and soils. But when moved often in rotational grazing their manure is pretty evenly distributed which is ideal for maintaining soil health and regenerating land.

          1. Hi, thank you for the article! Do you add fertilizer to your pastures some years or do the cows’ manure supply all of the nutrients needed? I ask because I read somewhere that over 50% of the nitrogen that a cow excretes is in the urine, which usually ends up in concentrated spots, so not all of the plants have access to it. If not, how do you add nitrogen back to the soil? Thanks!

          2. Hey, great thoughts and questions! So, we haven’t added any additional fertilizer besides what the cows scatter about. But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to if I had the opportunity. In my mind the ideal would be to use a manure spreader to evenly spread manure out over the entire field. And since a manure pile also contains a lot of bedding it captures a lot of the nitrogen from urine as well. We collect up some of the cows manure and bedding (and chickens) from their winter paddock in a manure pile, but at our scale I don’t have a tractor or manure spreader. We mainly use the composted manure in the garden. You can buy things like bags of pelleted chicken manure that are really good sources of nitrogen and spread out easily over a pasture. I like using animal fertilizers whenever possible. Generally the smaller paddocks you have and quicker you move your animals through them the less concentrated and more spread out their pee and poop will be. Hope that helps!

          3. Just another quick thought – soil works in mysterious ways. I wouldn’t be surprised with the microbiology, earth worms, and even mycelium in the soil that nutrients have a way of dispersing more than just where they’re deposited. I’m no scientist though 🙂

      1. Rotating chickens a couple days behind cattle will help reduce insects and spread out manure piles so they break down faster and help it to fertilize a larger area.

        1. Yes! Love this idea! I wanted to build some kind of egg-mobile to do just this early on, but on our scale without a truck or tractor to move it I couldn’t come up with a good solution. Thanks for the comment!

    1. Great information. Will the cows unknowingly participate in rotational grazing if you have a small herd in approximately 45 acres? The front 20 acres is all hay field and open. My goal is for them to rotate around the entire property allowing for the rotational grazing, without actually prohibiting them. What are your thoughts? Thanks for the information.

      1. Thanks! You can certainly let them roam and graze, especially with a good size portion of land like you have. Many farms practice this. The issue is that the cows will not manage the land and pasture nearly as well as you can through planned rotational grazing. Left alone, the cows will favor what they want and you might find that some areas don’t get grazed enough and grow too long and other areas the cows favor and graze too quickly not allowing enough time for proper regrowth. Both those scenarios will diminish the quality of the pasture over time. Even if you divided that 20 acres into 2 or 4 paddocks, you’d gain a lot more opportunity for allowing pasture to rest and regrow than you would have otherwise. Just something to think about. Even basic fiberglass posts with a single hot line running should be enough to divide up your pasture with cows. Hope that helps!

    1. Oh boy, that’s a good question that I’m not sure we have the most experience in. We trade watching after properties with some neighbors so we haven’t exchanged any money. I’ve heard around $25/day, but it can vary so much depending on what’s involved. You definitely want someone that’s competent. My guess would be in the $25-50/day range. Hope that helps! Anyone else have experience with this?

    1. You bet! We’ll be heading into our fourth growing season here. Every pasture is unique and I’ve found I learn more and more every year about how best to manage it to keep improving soil health. All the best to you!

  1. Thanks ! This article was a good read and we’ve had a family cow for two years 🙂
    We are moving though and our lot is only a half acre so I think we will only be able to have two paddocks and hay year round. Curious what you would do with the poop in that situation? I am thinking right now It will have to be scooped at least every other day and I’ll have to have a robust compost system. Maybe worm farm?

    Thanks again! Recently found you and love following other homesteaders.

    1. So we keep our cows in a paddock over the winter that’s maybe 1/4 acre in size. There’s a much smaller paddock off of that one where we separate our milk cow into at night time. With the little bit bigger paddock I just leave the poop and let it break down. It gets a little crowded with poop but it’s not too bad. The smaller paddock I scoop her poop daily into a pile just over my fence line and let it compost. It could be every other day, or however often makes sense… I’ve just found it most helpful to keep on top of daily with morning chores. My pile ends up becoming more of a row over time. I let it get 4-5′ high and then just keep filling in down the line. We don’t have any equipment to turn that big of a pile over. Our chickens do some scratching at it, which helps, but after a year or so of sitting it’s composted down beautifully to use in the garden. I haven’t found the pile to give off much of a smell either. Hope that helps! And good luck with the move!

  2. If you’d like to educate yourself on this subject, I recommend the book “Cows save the planet – and other improbable ways of restoring soul to heal the earth” by Judith D. Schwartz.

  3. Going by your post it seems to be more about larger size jersey cows I am assuming. What about highland mini cows , could u put 2 on 1 acres and then 2 males on a separate acre? Then you would need though another 2 acres I am assuming for rotation grazing, if I am understanding this correctly. I am having a hard time finding information online, where website seems to be telling me something different. I would be using 1 cow for milk and then well I wouldn’t have the room to keep the baby calfs so they be sold or used for meat when able too. Thank you in advance for any information.

    1. Hi! Our cow is an average jersey I would say – around 800-900 lbs. It’s really difficult to weigh in without knowing some specifics like your location, pasture quality, soil condition, etc. Something I might not have fully captured in the post is the seasonality of rotational grazing. During the peak spring and some summer months, your pasture may very well be able to handle say, 2 smaller cows grazing through one acre. However, as the rains die off come later summer and fall and the pasture is not as abundant you may find the pasture not providing enough to keep up with your cow’s demands. If you’re only dealing with an acre or two and have ambitions for more than one cow, it’s doable. You just want to plan for two things: 1) To have a good supply of hay on hand to supplement when the pasture is not keeping up with the demand. This will help the cows from overgrazing while still moving them through the pasture. And 2). a “sacrifice” area or space to keep the cows when the pasture needs a rest that you are OK with getting overgrazed. This space may have pasture, or it might not and the cows will need to rely on hay in there. As I mention in the post, I think it’s always best to start small, see how your land responds and handles things, and adjust from there. Hope that helps and all the best to you!

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