Soon our memories of winter snow and ice will be replaced with the rapidly growing forages of spring.
We envision our livestock surrounded by the lush, green forage that nature so graciously supplies at this time of year.
Now what? How do we utilize it now and ensure that we will have the quality and quantity we need to get us through the grazing season?
Experienced graziers often state that this 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 changing hourly when the sun shines.
What’s your goal? This is the time to step back and evaluate your year-round goal.
If you are trying to cut feed costs and extend the grazing season, then it is time to begin transitioning livestock from their winter feed to the growing forages.
If you have not already started this, consider that it takes the animal’s digestive system several days to adjust to a new diet.
Start slow. If we start them out with basically a full stomach of their current feed and gradually give them access to more fresh forage, we can make that transition with little disruption to their growth and performance.
This may mean turning the animals out on fields that have some new growth for a few hours at a time and gradually increase their time on fresh forage.
Another option is to pick a field that can stand a little abuse and turn them out on forage that is still a little short so that they cannot really get a lot at one time.
As the forage grows, their balance from existing feed to new growth will adjust itself.
The key to this method is to not leave them on these areas for too long and to allow those fields to fully recover before they are grazed again.
Keep hay available. As animals adjust to the lush spring growth, it is important to keep some hay available to them so they can partly balance their own diet.
Sometimes the new growth is so wet and lush that it more or less goes right through the animals and doesn’t remain in the system long enough for the animal to meet its nutritional needs.
By having some lower quality hay available, the rate of passage through the digestive system is slowed and both sources of feed is more efficiently utilized.
Check condition. Be sure to check on the condition of animals as they are being turned out for grazing.
This is a good time to check and treat for various health concerns.
Look ahead. Take time now to determine your ultimate grazing schedule. Are you looking for a system that will allow you to move the livestock once or twice a week or are you working toward a system that will involve moving the animals once or twice a day?
Each operation is different and weather conditions will dictate frequent changes in the schedule to meet forage consumption needs for the livestock and rest period needs for the livestock.
Watch plant growth. As the forage growth slows, many people tend to give the animals access to larger areas of the field, which means they get back to the same area sooner. This leads to lower production because the plants actually needs a longer recovery period.
You really need to make the areas smaller with longer rest periods between grazing and add supplemental feed as necessary to meet the feed requirements.
Talking about summer slumps may seem a bit premature now, but planning now will help you prepare and manage for it before it is a problem.
Another crop? Do you need to add a high production annual crop to some of your area to use during the hottest, driest part of summer?
How about your water system? Are you limited to how you divide your fields by where you have water? Would you do things differently if you could have water in other areas?
Maybe it is time to think outside of the box and consider some alternative water sources. For summer grazing, a pipeline or even a hose on top of the ground to a temporary tank can be an inexpensive and flexible method of getting water to areas of the farm or field that do not have springs, existing tanks or a stream.
Pumping from existing systems to temporary tanks lets you use existing resources.
Picking up the overflow from an existing tank and setting additional tanks at lower elevations is also a possibility. Adding a pump – electric, gasoline or solar – may let you move water to higher elevations, which opens some additional options.
Think first about where the available forages are, then address the challenge of how to best utilize them.
Temporary fence and portable water can really broaden you options.
Get help. If you need a different set of eyes or another opinion, why not invite your local conservationist or extension agent out to walk your pasture with you and discuss the possibilities. Why not invite a neighbor or another grazier out to discuss the options?
Everyone sees things a little differently and what might seem like a real challenge to you may have already been dealt with by someone else.
Attend a local pasture walk and see how others are addressing the issues.
Learn as you go. Grazing should be fun as well as environmentally friendly. It offers many challenges to the observing mind. It is the natural way to harvest forages. Involve your family in designing your system and in making decisions.
The No. 1 thing is to start the process and learn as you go. The weather, changing seasons, etc. make each year different, and give us never-ending learning opportunities.
(The author is a grazing lands conservationist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.)