For good spring and summer pastures, start early

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beef cattle on pasture

Managing pasture growth early in the growing season is important to maintain high quality and high quantity forage production throughout the spring, summer and fall.

In the spring, rapid growth occurs in cool season grasses because the optimum temperature for growth occurs and one of the most important nutrients, water, is usually readily available. Growth distribution of cool season grasses and most legumes are greatest when air temperatures reach 70-85 degrees (April-June). One should start moving animals through the first paddocks when soil conditions permit and the plants are a few inches tall (3-5 inches).

If soil conditions are too wet it complicates grazing management. Pugging the soil often times causes root damage when livestock walk on water-soaked ground.

Be careful

Care should be taken so this does not occur to large portions of your grazing area. Severe pugging can decrease growth for weeks, maybe months. Fence livestock onto a heavy-use pad and feed hay or use a sacrifice area that needs renovated if conditions like this persist. Paddocks that are well drained or predominantly fescue are good choices to use early. If minor plugging occurs, plant production will not decline very much. It may even boost production of clover within the fescue because opening the soil can stimulate new plant growth if viable seeds are present. Setting the stage for staggered regrowth in your paddocks is important, but often hard to accomplish. Everything is trying to grow at once.

Rotate livestock through paddocks or fields at a pace which gives them just enough time to graze the tops off the forage. Move on to the next field and let livestock graze the same way. This will allow for production of healthy plants with well-developed root systems to produce high quality forage for future rotations. Hay fields may also be used in these very early rotations without causing noticeable hay tonnage loss, as long as the soil is dry enough to support livestock and the stems of the grass plants are not elongating yet.

Over grazing

If left in the same field for extended periods of time, livestock will graze the same areas/plants again and again. If severe defoliation takes place the grass plant will use carbohydrates in its root system for energy it needs to grow new leaves and stems. As carbohydrates are drawn from the roots, portions of the roots die and separate from the plant. If root growth stops or is slowed dramatically, uptake of water and nutrients is seriously limited. Forages in early spring pastures are extremely lush.

Plant material may be only 15 percent dry matter while crude protein is generally high, possibly 20-25 percent. Hay or supplemental feed should still be provided during the early rotations to be sure adequate dry matter is available in the animal’s diet. All livestock producers should supply free choice mineral mixtures with adequate amounts of magnesium (minimum 12 percent mg) at this time of year and monitor intake to be sure of consumption. This reduces the chances of grass tetany in livestock that are grazing grass-dominate paddocks.

Watch for bloat

If legumes are the predominant species in a paddock, do not turn livestock into the forage while plants are wet. Bloat may occur. Wait until the surface moisture dries from the plants. Also, feeding hay before entering legume dominant paddocks will help reduce chances of bloat. As rotations continue into mid and late May, more volumes of forages should be growing in each paddock.

Cool season grasses, like most living things, attempt to reproduce in the spring. If plants are allowed to head, flower and set seed, the quality of forage and total production may be decreased the remainder of the growing season. Regulating livestock consumption in each paddock to keep grass in a vegetative state should be the manager’s objective.

Monitor growth

This can be very hard to accomplish. It is important to look ahead and monitor growth in your paddocks. If livestock are not consuming forage growth fast enough to keep grass in the vegetative stage, jump ahead a few paddocks in the rotation to the proper stage of forage growth. There may be some seed heads form, but don’t let that bother you.

Use the surplus forage in those bypassed paddocks for hay or haylage if needed. After harvest and forage re-grows, include these areas into the summer rotations again. This will allow longer rest periods for other paddocks. The key is to remain flexible. Each growing season is different. Monitor the grass and legume growth often to maximize your production and maintain the highest quality forage.

Fertilizer use

Wise use of fertilizer in the spring is an important part of pasture growth management. Do not spread fertilizer on all of your pastures early in the spring. If you need more pasture early, only fertilize a few of your paddocks (1/3 maximum). Late May or early June is a better time for fertilization. This will have several benefits. First, you are not adding to the excess growth problem most managers have in the spring.

Secondly, you will be providing nutrients to the forage plants at a time before warmer and dryer weather is about to begin. The plants can use the nutrients at this time to maximize productivity before the summer slump occurs. This provides additional growth for livestock consumption at a time when it will be needed and quality of this forage should still be very high. Temperatures are warming and grass is growing in our part of the state. Proper management of early forage growth is the key to quantity and quality of production you may expect later.

Keep up

Make early rotations through paddocks quickly. Don’t let animals over-graze plants. As rotations continue, only place livestock in paddocks that have had sufficient time/rest for plant regrowth.

Better forage quality will be produced and greater quantity will be generated throughout the year. The plants, the animals and you will be rewarded for properly managing your forages during the early spring growth.

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