The presence of grazing cattle near open waterways has created environmental concerns related to the potential for water contamination. In Florida the removal of cattle from grazing landscapes or decreasing stocking density is being investigated as one option to improve the quality of surface water runoff draining into Lake Okeechobee, Florida. The objective of this study was to determine the effects of stocking rate on cow-calf performance, forage availability and quality, and ranch economic performance. Experimental pastures were established on a southern Florida cow-calf operation with stocking rates of 0.58, 1.01, and 1.35 ha·cow−1 on summer pastures and 0.93, 1.62, and 2.16 ha·cow−1 on winter pastures, corresponding to high, medium, and low rates, respectively. The study was conducted over 4 consecutive production years. Cow body condition scores (BCS), pregnancy rate, and calf average daily gain were used as measures of animal performance. Forage utilization was estimated by measuring the difference between forage yield inside and outside grazing exclusion cages and forage quality by crude protein and in vitro organic matter digestibility. Forage yield, utilization, and quality were not significantly affected by stocking rate. Although statistically not significant (P = 0.17), cattle in the high stocking rate experienced a numerically greater loss of BCS following the winter grazing period, but stocking rate did not affect pregnancy rate or calf gains. Production (kg weaned calves·ha−1) was increased (P < 0.01) for a high stocking rate compared with medium and low stocking rates. Overall ranch profitability will decrease as stocking rates decline. Ranch revenues decrease one-for-one as stocking rates decrease. At the same time, unit cow costs increase at an increasing rate as fewer brood cows are left to support the ranch's fixed cost structure.
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Vol. 60 • No. 1