Our January weather here in Ohio has been quite pleasant compared with the cold December we experienced. The recent mild days have given me a touch of spring fever!
Many of you are likely already thinking about the approaching grazing season. While we don’t know what the weather will be, now is a good time to take stock and plan for likely grazing challenges during the season.
Two of those challenges include the spring flush of growth and later the summer slump in production.
The spring flush. Plan now to start grazing permanent pastures early, when plants are 2 to 3 inches tall. Move livestock rapidly (1 to 2 days) through paddocks.
Once forage is at the normal grazing height (6 to 10 inches), lengthen the grazing period to utilize the available pasture, but keep grazing periods to less than 4 days in the spring by adjusting paddock size.
Staggers growth. These steps will help stagger pasture growth early in the season. As spring growth accelerates, increase the rate of rotation through the paddocks by leaving a taller residual, or remove some paddocks that can be harvested for hay later.
One problem with leaving a taller residual cover is that it will likely reduce tiller density and vigor of grasses as they move into the summer months.
So excessive spring growth can lead to poor summer production and overgrazing during the summer slump.
Let them grow. It is probably better to maintain control over the most productive pastures and let the less productive areas grow out rather than having all your acres in a mediocre state.
In essence, you will be increasing your stocking rate on the productive area (maintaining quality and good growth rates) while stockpiling growth (poor quality) on the less productive area.
The tall paddocks can be harvested for hay, or utilized later by animals with lower nutritional needs. Where grazing is not sufficient to keep up with the grass growth, clipping can also help maintain grasses in a vigorous vegetative state.
Clipping pastures. Opinions vary widely about clipping pastures. Despite the disadvantages and potential pitfalls with this option, it is probably one of the most viable solutions in many systems.
Avoid nitrogen applications to pastures in early spring to prevent excessive forage production. Use nitrogen in early spring only when additional early growth is really needed.
It is usually best to delay nitrogen use until late May or early June to help extend growth into the summer months. If you have the opportunity, increase the stocking rate during the spring.
The summer slump. Managing for the summer slump begins with good grazing management in the spring. As mentioned above, maintaining tiller density in the spring will help grasses remain more productive in the summer.
Consider establishing some of your acres to warm season species (perennials or annuals) to defer more forage production until later in the season. This option requires careful planning to achieve a good balance of cool and warm-season species.
Due to the expense, difficulty, and slowness of establishing perennial warm season species, use of annual warm season species is likely to be a better option for many.
Best to use. There are many annuals that produce well in the summer, including sudangrass, sorghum-sudangrass, pearl millet, spring planted brassicas, and even crabgrass.
Consider the attributes of each, and plan to have a few acres planted to a species that can provide forage during the summer slump of permanent pastures.
Another option we often don’t consider is to graze alfalfa during the summer dry period. Alfalfa, with its deep taproot, continues to produce good growth long after many grasses slow down during the summer.
With careful management, alfalfa can be grazed and will provide high animal performance.
In a University of Kentucky study, yearling cattle gained 1.3 to 2.1 pounds per head per day on alfalfa, grazing over a 103- to 152-day grazing period.
But alfalfa could be grazed strategically just during the summer slump of grass pastures. Daily feeding of an anti-bloating agent is very important when grazing alfalfa.
Talk to others. The beauty of grazing is the flexibility and number of options that can be built into the system. What is best for one operation may not be the best for another.
Talking with other producers and specialists can help you arrive at the best system for your farm. Take advantage of opportunities to interact with others.
Contact your local county extension office for upcoming grazing events, or check out our events calendar at http://forages.osu.edu.
(The author is an associate professor in the Department of Horticulture and Crop Science at Ohio State University. Questions and comments can be sent in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460.)