It is now officially spring and it is about time for grazing our livestock.
Think it is too soon? I might be cheating, but I have been grazing my spring calving cattle on stockpiled fescue since March 5 and haven’t fed them hay since then.
In reality, I plan on officially grazing new growth on March 29 (on some warmer springs, I have started around March 21).
My real world experience
After teaching pasture and grazing programs for 25 years and trying to “practice what I preach”, here is what I try to do.
First, we need to start off with healthy pastures, ones that can take an early grazing without hurting re-growth too much.
Next, I try to estimate when the spring “flush” of new rapid growth will start. In most years, it is around April 5-10 in southeastern Ohio.
Then I try to figure how long it will take to do a fast rotation of my paddocks and hay fields that I can early graze. On my farm and through experience, this is about 14 days.
So if I start grazing and rotating March 29 and the spring “flush” of growth starts around April 10, I should be in good shape.
Maybe you can figure out how long it would take you to do a fast rotation before you expect the flush of new growth in your area.
Not hurting re-growth
Let me explain this further. If I can slow down growth a little bit by early grazing, maybe we can spread out the flush of spring growth.
Since about 70 percent of our forage production is in the spring, it would be nice if we could lengthen or more evenly spread out the production of our pastures.
So I may graze early at the expense of some of my paddocks, but they are fairly healthy. I also do a couple early light grazings of a few of my hay fields (making sure the cattle do not “pug” up the fields in wet weather).
I try to stop grazing hay fields before stem elongation and make hay from them a little later, as the grazing will set the maturity and yields back a little.
This will give my regular paddocks a longer chance to rest and recover, and then they can be grazed more frequently during the fast growth when the hay fields are not grazed.
Depending on pasture and hay needs, I can graze or make hay on one or several of the hay fields later in the summer.
As we get later in the summer and if a paddock or two needs attention, we can fertilize or add manure to the paddocks and give them extra rest.
If our pastures are not in the best of shape, I would consider letting the forages grow for a while before grazing.
The initial growth will be from root reserves and as the grass and legumes grow, the plants will start putting some energy into the roots and into seed production.
Later in the spring, when seed heads have been produced, I encourage a clipping of the pastures to allow the plants, especially grass to focus primarily on leaf production and building root reserves.
Fertilizing is an option, and I recommend that you have an adequate pH. to best utilize the nutrients (most pastures a 5.5-7.0 p.H. is ideal).
Avoid too much nitrogen as this may make the pastures grow faster, but in the spring, it can also weaken the root reserves since the plant is moving nutrients up to make seed heads.
Doesn’t always work
Mother Nature does not always cooperate with plans for early grazing. Last year, it was very cool and I started to graze in late March, but grass did not grow as fast and I had to go back to feeding hay for a week, but it finally warmed up and everything was fine.
A lot of graziers like to see how long they can go until they feed hay in the winter, but you can save feeding hay on the other end…this end.
Other things we can do
Every year, I seem to have a paddock that took an extra beating in the winter. It is usually one that needed extra fertility and I fed a lot of hay in that field and it got trampled up a little too much. This year, I even spread some manure on it. This was a perfect candidate to frost seed.
In this field, I may skip a rotation or two to let it recover and establish the frost seeding.
If grass gets too far ahead of the new clover, I may graze the field for a very short time to set the grass back a little and give the clover more sunlight to get established.
I will lose some clover from trampling, but the remaining clover will be better able to compete with the established grass.
Don’t forget the 4R’s
At the recent Ohio Beef School, Wayne County Ag Educator Rory Lewandowski was discussing grazing management and he reminded everyone to follow the 4R’s of grazing management.
- Remove the seed heads. This will encourage new growth and better quality.
- Right plant height is critical prior to grazing. Let the forage grow tall enough so the animals can take a full bite and not have to chew and this height will also allow the plants to build root reserves.
- Residue management is important. As a rule of thumb, take half and leave half. If you graze too close, the plant will have to initiate new growth from the roots.
- Finally, rest periods are important to allow the plant to grow enough to put energy into the roots.
Don’t forget to plan
Every year is different. Two years ago, we had early warm weather and the driest summer in decades. Last year, we had a cold slow spring and a wet summer.
What will this year bring? I do not know, but a key to successful grazing is trying to predict what is down the road so we can be prepared for it.
In 2012, I tried to put up as much extra hay as I could in case the summer turned dry and it did. I had plenty of hay but not water. Last year I had two springs re-worked so I would have more water.
What have I done this year? So far I have bought a new chain saw. I hope that doesn’t mean bad storms and fixing a lot of fence from downed trees, but if it does, I will be ready.