With the wet, rainy spring now a memory we need to catch up on our grazing management and plan our strategy for this fall and winter.
Take a few minutes now to inventory your pasture and hay fields.
Plenty of questions. How much grass do you have in each field? What is the quality? Does it need clipped? Do you have enough to set aside for hay production? Will you have enough to start stockpiling for fall and winter feed in the next few weeks?
Is the color a deep green or a splotchy yellowish green with dark green spots around the urine and dung areas? Which areas were badly abused during the wet weather? Why are some areas doing better than others?
Is there anything that you have learned from your grazing experience this spring and summer that will change your management for the rest of this year or in the future?
Experienced grazers often state that spring is one of the most difficult times of the year to properly manage our forages. We just have too much, too fast and it is changes hourly when the sun shines.
Let me suggest that you reflect back and evaluate what your spring management or lack thereof has given you to work with for the rest of the year.
Now is the time. Now that production has slowed down and hopefully the first cutting of hay has been taken care of, it is time to get serious about our management for the rest of the year.
Check the fields for plant maturity and seed head production. Clip those areas that need to be clipped to control undesirable growth and to remove the seed heads and encourage the plants to return to a vegetative state.
Review your soil fertility program. Do you need to add lime while the soils are in shape for the lime truck to get around without causing compaction problems.
Do you need an over all fertilizer application or possibly some nitrogen to encourage grass growth for stockpiling within the next month?
Unique situations. If you haven’t noticed yet, I ask a lot of questions that only you can answer for your situation. Each farm is different and the goals of each farmer are different.
If you are perfectly content to run a few animals on a large number of acres then management intensive grazing probably is not for you.
If on the other hand, you are looking for ways to cut your year round production costs, have healthier animals, work towards a more sustainable production program and accomplish your goals in an environmentally-friendly fashion then the answers to the above questions will be the basis for your actions in the coming weeks, months and years.
Be flexible. Just as nature is always changing, we must be willing to observe the results of our decisions and make adjustments to take advantage of those things that are working well for us and seek other options for those things which are not working as well as we would like.
Be sure to check on the condition of animals as you are rotating them through the paddocks. Are they gaining weight or does there appear to be a problem?
Early detection and treatment of a problem may pay big dividends in the long run.
Check the water supply often as the days get hotter. Having adequate, high quality water available at all times is critical to getting the most economical production out of our animals. It is the cheapest feed we have.
Have you noticed? Talk about summer slumps may be getting old, but have you noticed how quickly the forage changed from rapid production in the spring to a desire to form seed heads and slow down as the weather got hot?
The size of our paddocks or the amount of time in the paddocks and the amount of rest between grazing periods needs to change to reflect this change in plant production. As a rule of thumb, we should be doubling the days of rest between grazing cycles for the rest of the summer compared to what we were doing this spring.
For most of our forage mixtures about 18 days between grazing periods in the spring is adequate for the plants to recover and maintain productivity. In the hotter, drier days of summer we are looking at 35-42 days of rest for most of our mixtures.
These rest periods, accompanied by short grazing periods of one to five days, will result in the quality of the pasture improving over time with all else being the same.
Speed it up. We can speed up the improvement by making sure the fertility levels match the soil types and that the appropriate plants are present to take advantage of this type of management.
If a fall seeding is to be made, the type of seed to be planted should be selected and purchased soon as the fall seeding dates are coming quickly for most of the reading area.
Select a type and quality of seed that will enhance your grazing program.
Consider carefully whether to plant a winter annual which you can graze this winter and follow-up with a spring seeding, or if you are looking for a drought tolerant plant with good summer production potential, or maybe it is time to get ready for a warm season grass to be planted next spring to diversify your summer options.
Wanted: good planning. Whatever the decisions are to be made, good planning is essential to achieve consistently good results. Grazing should be fun as well as environmentally-friendly.
If you can answer all of the above questions with confidence then move to the head of the class. If you cannot, then have some fun and take a walk to observe your system.
Family affair. Take your family with you and make it a summer evening stroll as you observe your operation and share your thoughts and goals with the family and they share with you.
Make it a regular event to walk over your operation and note down any significant observations. Think about those questions that you don’t have a good answer for.
Ask for help. Ask questions of your neighbors, your local grazing contact, or call on your local Natural Resource Conservation Service, Extension Service or Soil and Water Conservation District staff and involve them in finding the answers.
We all learn from each other and the first step is being willing to observe and ask questions.
Grazing is the natural way to harvest forages and managing a grazing operation gives us never-ending learning opportunities.
(The author is a grazing lands conservationist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.)