We are at my favorite time of the year. Grass is starting to grow. Depending how far south you live, some have already started to graze pastures.
On my farm, the spring calving cows have been on stockpiled fescue for about three weeks on high ground, avoiding most of the mud, but this weekend I will move them to a rapid rotation through hay fields and other permanent pasture fields that have not been grazed since last fall.
The goals are to move them through the fields fast enough that they do not “pug” the soil, especially in the hay fields, and have them through a rotation by the time the flush of growth takes off in April.
Now is a great time to review the needs of our pastures in order to provide high quality forages for the season while increasing yields. Unfortunately, the needs of your animals and the needs of your forages conflict with each other.
The animal will eat the best tasting, most desirable plants in the field. When it starts to grow again, the animals will come back and graze it again. At the same time, this is providing a more desirable environment for undesirable plants.
This is especially true with horses that have an upper set of teeth and are much more selective in their grazing of desirable plants compared with sheep and goats.
On the other hand, the plants in your fields want to produce a seed head and become over mature. If pastures are not properly managed we end up with poorly growing desirable plants and a lot of undesirable plants.
This is where grazing management can help control plant growth. The livestock producer becomes the manager and makes decisions about where, when and what will graze the pastures. The goal is to improve desirable species and increase yields, therefore increasing the amount of product sold and decreasing costs.
Many that write this column have discussed the principles of management-intensive grazing; rest periods, short duration grazing, psychological barriers, matching animal needs to forage value and no seed heads. I will focus on the last principle to keep our plants growing, especially with our perennial cool season grasses.
When our grass starts to grow, it will be in the reproductive phase. Its main goal is to produce seeds. Right now, grass already has flower buds that were formed last fall in the base of the plants. Some of these “tillers” are reproductive and some are vegetative.
As spring growth accelerates, the reproductive tillers grow taller because they have the stem and seed head, then they shade out the vegetative tillers. The seed heads on the reproductive tillers also produce hormones that retard the development of other vegetative tillers.
What do we do? To improve yields and quality of our pastures, it is imperative to remove the seed heads. We can remove excess forages by making hay or clipping the pastures. If we are lucky enough, maybe the livestock will be able to remove seed heads.
Grass with mature seed heads will have little continued growth and low quality. Removing the seed heads will promote the development of the vegetative tillers.
Because most cool season grasses require cool temperatures and long nights to once again develop reproductive tillers, vegetative growth is produced for the rest of the year. This will stimulate a denser cover, and if managed properly, build up root reserves, keep soil cooler and capture more moisture in the event of a heavy summer rain.
Think about how close you want to cut the grass. The height you cut your fields can influence diversity of plants. Clipping fields close will encourage bluegrass and white clover growth. Clipping pastures at a higher level will favor orchardgrass and fescue growth.
Depending on the density of your forages at mowing and how much pressure you put on the field when grazing, you can maintain the minimum clipping height with the livestock during the growing season because the animals tend to graze above where the forages were clipped avoiding the mature, coarse stubble.
The time of the year when seed heads emerge is an extremely busy time with planting crops and making hay. But if you can also remove those seed heads, you will stimulate new growth that will improve the quality and quantity of the pastures for the rest of the season.
(Chris Penrose is an OSU Extension Educator, Agriculture and Natural Resources and 4-H Youth Development in Morgan County. Questions or comments can be sent in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem OH 44460.)