Many experienced graziers will tell you that the hardest time to start a management intensive grazing system is in the spring.
With that time of year rapidly approaching, I don’t want to discourage anyone from improving their grazing system this spring. Rather I hope to give you some food for thought as you get ready to take advantage of the abundant spring growth that is coming soon.
Lessons from Indiana. A recent article I read by Ed Heckman, extension educator from Wayne County, Ind., offered the following insights.
“Grazing management is 10 times more important than tillage or seeding.
“Move fast and just top your paddocks during the early spring flush period. Apply some nitrogen fertilization at the end of spring. This is very cost effective because it helps to prevent running out of grass in mid-summer.
“We ultimately become what we fantasize ourselves to be. I can learn from my own mistakes. How much wiser are those who can learn from other’s mistakes.
“Start grazing in the spring when forage is a few inches tall (with supplemental feed). If you wait until it is taller, you may never catch up.
“In the spring, consider mowing one-third of each paddock before the animals enter it. This allows the animals to balance the washy, spring grass with some high, dry matter mown grass. This will keep the animal performance high.
“If clover grows better in a urine patch than in open pasture, it may indicate the need for potassium. If clover grows better in dung pats, soil phosphorus may be low.
“Tell me and I will forget; show me and I will remember; involve me and I will understand.”
Improve your system. Now is the time to become involved in improving your system.
Attend a local grazing school or pasture walks. See what your neighbors are doing that is working.
Think about how you can reduce spending rather than just increasing production. You will actually make more money that way.
Over the past several years we have all heard it said that you have to increase the size of your operation to stay in business. Many farmers have done this to find out in a few years that they are still not making any money.
By improving your grazing system from running the livestock over large fields to controlling their access to smaller paddocks, you can move from 50 percent or more of the forage potential being wasted to 90-100 percent utilization.
And best of all you can accomplish this without buying a lot of new and expensive equipment.
Small investments. A small investment in a good fence charger, and some portable fence to divide existing fields will yield almost immediate benefits for very little investment.
Getting water to all of the fields can be a challenge but it is often an excuse that can be overcome with a little planning and possibly some garden hose or plastic pipe and a portable tank.
As your system becomes more developed the portable and temporary practices can be made more permanent. Remember a key to getting started is to try it.
If you want to add in some additional crops for mid-summer or to extend the grazing season into the fall, your plans now will help you pick the sites where they can best be utilized.
If you are ready to try some grazing corn, timely planting will yield more production than waiting until a summer drought makes you wish you had planted early.
Develop, manage. Developing and managing what you have is often more cost effective than trying to completely renovate a system.
Your management will play a bigger factor on the type of plants you have in a given field five years from now than the type of seeds you plant.
I am not saying it never pays to completely renovate a pasture or hay field, but make sure that your management will allow the seeding to be successful. While you are waiting for the last of the snow and ice to give way to the fresh spring grass, take inventory of your complete forage system.
What fields are available for grazing and haying? Is the stand adequate or would it benefit from inter-seeding of additional grasses and legumes?
Is the fertility and pH where it needs to be to get the production you want? Have you taken a recent soil test or at least looked at the color and uniformity of your forages?
Where are the available water sources and what improvements could be made in your water system that would allow the livestock to more uniformly utilize the forages?
What steps can you take now or in the future to improve your grazing system?
Need help? Consider participating in an upcoming grazing school or pasture walks. Contact your local Natural Resources Conservation Service, Soil and Water Conservation District or extension office personnel and ask them for information or suggestions.
Talk with other farmers who have made the switch to management intensive grazing. The number one thing is to start the process and learn as you go.
(The author is a grazing lands conservationist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. Questions or comments can be sent in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460.)