Although stocking rate is a key management variable influencing the structure and composition of pastures, only few studies have simultaneously analysed the seasonal patterns of pasture use by cattle, and the adjustments the animals make to maintain intake of a high-quality diet over the grazing season. Therefore, over a 3-year study, we recorded diet selection, plot use and impact of heifers on sward structure and quality under three different stocking rates (0.6, 1.0 and 1.4 livestock units (LU) per ha) in a species-rich mountain pasture of central France. Measurements were made on three occasions between early June and the end of September each year. Overall, heifers selected for bites dominated by legumes or forbs, and against reproductive grass, whatever the stocking rate or season. Selection for tall mixed (P < 0.05), short mixed (P < 0.05) and short pure grass bites (P < 0.01) was more pronounced in plots grazed at the lowest stocking rate. Although heifers’ selection for short patches decreased at the end of the season (P < 0.001), they continued to graze previously grazed areas, thus exhibiting a typical ‘patch grazing’ pattern, with the animals that grazed at the lowest stocking rate tending to better maintain their selection for short patches in September (treatment × period: P = 0.078). Neither diet quality nor individual animal performance were affected by the different stocking rate treatments despite high variability in the quantity and quality of herbage offered and differences in diet selection. However, at the 1.4 LU per ha stocking rate, the quantity of forage available per animal at the end of the season, 0.79 t dry matter (DM) per ha of green leaves with the median of sward height at 4.6 cm, approached levels limiting cattle’s ability to compensate for the effects of increasing stocking rate. In plots grazed at 0.6 LU per ha, the total herbage biomass remained higher than 3 t DM per ha with more than 30% of plot area still covered by reproductive grass patches at the end of the grazing season, which in the medium term should affect the botanical composition of these pastures. Sward heterogeneity was high in plots grazed at 1.0 LU per ha, with sufficient herbage availability (1.1 t DM per ha of green leaves) to maintain animal performance, and more than 15% of plot area was kept at a reproductive stage at the end of the grazing season. Hence, it could represent the optimal balance to satisfy both livestock production and conservation management objectives.