Start forage management now

Much of Eastern Ohio has dealt with more rain than we know what to do with this spring. This means more forage growth, but also softer soil conditions and the potential for mud and compaction problems.

Managing forages for grazing or hay production is an ever-changing challenge. While much of the country has been experiencing drought conditions, much of Eastern Ohio has dealt with more rain than we know what to do with this spring.

As we view our grazing systems this has meant more forage growth than we have seen in the past few years. This has also meant softer soil conditions and the potential for mud and compaction problems.

Generally good. More forage is generally a good thing, except when it gets ahead of us and the fescue pastures go to seed and the hay fields are to wet to harvest.

We may need to think about actually harvesting some hay from our pasture fields when we can get into them to mow, so that we can remove some of the excess early growth that has became mature faster than the livestock can harvest it. Once our grasses go to seed they will not grow much until they are grazed or mowed off.

Consider staggering your mowing schedule. If we want to have good growth for the rest of the summer and going into fall and winter we need to work on getting the forage plants back into a vegetative state now. Clipping or harvesting a portion of the pasture on a schedule similar to a grazing schedule will help with the rotational grazing throughout the rest of the summer.

Staggered mowing. Rather than having all of the grass at the same stage of maturity, a staggered mowing schedule will keep the grass growth at different stages. We are approaching the time that we need to slow down our rotation to allow for longer rest periods between grazing events.

While 10 to 18 days of rest between grazing times is adequate in the early spring, we need to allow most of our forages 28 to 42 days rest during the hot dry summer months.

Keeping the grazing periods short so that the animals do not regraze the same plant in a given field during each rotation will also improve the overall quantity and quality of the forage over time. Moving the animals to the next field when there is still a minimum of 3 to 4 inches of growth on the plant will allow the plants to recover much quicker than if they are allowed to graze it into the ground.

Include hay fields. As the first cutting of hay is completed, consider which of your hay fields might be included into your grazing system. By grazing additional fields now you will let the animals spread the manure, while saving the harvesting costs.

Additional land brought into the system now will also allow for stockpiling of forages in your drier fields for deferred grazing into the fall and winter. Select some areas now that you can use to set aside from mid to late July through late fall. Continue grazing the other available areas as needed.

The growth that you accumulate on the set aside fields is often of higher quality than the hay that you make from the same fields up through mid winter.

Animal control. When you turn the animals into the stockpiled forage, control the amount that they have access to at any one time.

You would not turn animals directly into a bunker silo without expecting them to waste a great portion of the silage. We should treat our stockpiled forages as stored feed that is too valuable to waste. Allow them access to only a few days feed at a time and they will not soil and trample nearly as much as if they have access to the entire field.

With proper planning and management most farms can get through December, January and perhaps most of February on stockpiled forage before they need to think about feeding hay. As your system develops winter-feeding days are determined more by the soil conditions such as mud than by the amount of feed that is available. The economics of letting the cows do the harvesting and the manure spreading becomes apparent if you figure the hours spent on the tractor doing it for them.

The management decisions that you make regarding your forages during the next few weeks will determine the quantity and quality of forages that your livestock will have for the rest of year. Don’t let the frustration of a few rainy days discourage you from improving your grazing management.

(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.)

About the Author

The author is an area grassland conservationist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, located in the Licking County field office in Newark, Ohio; 740-670-5236. More Stories by Patty Dyer

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