I live in southern Ohio, where recently temperatures have been warmer, the dogwoods are mostly done blooming, allergy suffers and been seen sneezing with watery eyes, and, most importantly to our grazing producers, the grass has been greener. The desire of producers and animals alike to take advantage of spring growth can be intense, but it may be worth the wait to step back and look over your grazing plan before throwing those gates open.
Finding your balance
I wish I could tell you that there was one magic date where animals could be allowed to graze in the spring with great outcomes for pastures and animals alike. I also wish I could tell our plant enthusiasts the date they should plant to be completely safe from cold temperatures. However, as with many answers we give, we require more information. What are your pastures composed of, what was the results of your last soil test, how many and what type of animals are you grazing, what damage from winter do you need to fix, are you able to graze rotationally and what are your pasture management goals are just a few of the questions that could affect when you decide to let animals graze new growth.
Be aware of changes that diet and movement patterns can affect your animals and pastures. New growth often is high in water content and low in fiber content. Continuing to provide access to hay and supplements allows animals to get nutrients they may not be getting as they eat new growth. You should also understand that pastures are trying to re-establish root systems after winter has depleted plant reserves. Grazing plants too much early in the season can lead to issues with poorly established stands that will not be ready for harsh summer conditions. Not grazing plants enough can allow plants to put too much energy into seed production instead of vegetative growth.
Manage parasites early
Many internal parasites become issues early in the season. As we have moved away from treating all animals in our care for parasites to slow the development of dewormer-resistant worms, we need new ways to manage worms in our animals. Rotational grazing in short stints can help with this issue as well, but requires that producers stay on tight schedules and manage pastures more intensely. Worms can go from eggs deposited in the field through feces to larvae capable of infecting new animals in 3-4 days. If rotations follow that timeline, moving animals to new pastures every 3-4 days will prevent larvae from infecting animals. This is more time intensive than typical rotations but may be a strategy to help prevent worm issues.
If you know you have had similar issues in the past, it may be worth considering more intensive management on the front end as opposed to treating and managing extensive worm issues later. Producers with sheep and goats should also consider the FAMACHA system to guide in treatment decisions.
Winter months can do various things to our pastures. While we did not have many extended cold periods or much heavy snow in my area, freezing/thawing processes can damage water systems, allow for shifting of some fencing systems, and damage root systems of plants near winter feeding and water sources. Making time to inspect fence lines and repair any broken equipment are a constant part of farming. And while it is past time to plant many crops to renovate pastures affected my winter practices, it is ideal timing for many annual crops like pearl millet, sudangrass, sorghum or teff.
Annual forages may be good options to fill gaps in production timelines of traditional perennial forages. If you are interested in more information about many of these crops, check out https://cfaes.osu.edu/features/ohio-cover-crops to learn more. For more information on managing your pasture resources, you can also check out forages.osu.edu. If you would like to discuss your management strategies on any of the above topics, contact your local extension office.
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