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Acres of Knowledge

Are Your Pastures Ready for Spring Grazing?

Have you surveyed your pastures? Do any areas need to be renovated? It is too late, this year, to do any frost seeding in those area. However, there is still time to use a no-till drill to plant grass or legumes in any “thin” areas needing more forage plants. Remember a legume in a pasture adds high quality forage and extra nitrogen for the grass.

Do you have a plan for handling the “spring flush” of cool-season grass and legume growth? This period of rapid spring grass growth happens when air temperatures are in the 70’s (degrees F) and moisture is readily available. During this “spring flush” of growth, our cool-season grasses will produce up to 60% of their total annual growth during the months of April, May and June.

Start grazing your animals as soon as soil conditions permit and the forages are a few inches tall. Then you have two choices on how you will graze: continuous grazing or a rotational grazing system.

If you continuously graze a pasture, you have very little control over how to handle the excess spring growth. About the only option we have is to take a brush cutting mower and cut down the over mature stemmy, low quality forage in late June or July.

If you choose a rotational grazing system, then your options expand: to rotating rapidly through all the paddocks; or selecting paddocks to graze and hay the rest; or increase stocking rates during spring flush.

When we are rapidly rotating grazing animals through paddocks during the spring, our goal is to graze off only the tops of the grass blades. This will help to keep the grass from heading out and keep it in the desired vegetative stage. The goal with this strategy is to accumulate a thick heavy stand of grass going into the summer heat or a summer stockpile of forage. This choice has a lot of benefits, but it takes a lot of management.

As the spring grazing season progresses, you may decide to focus the grazing on a few paddocks and use the other paddocks for hay. These need to be cut for hay by the “boot” stage of growth for quality hay. This hay can then be used for supplemental feeding later in the season or over the winter. As the pasture growth slows, the paddocks used for hay are placed back in the grazing rotation with the other paddocks.

You can increase you grazing animal stocking rates during the spring. This could be a system that works well for a cow-calf operation that carries weaned calves through the winter. The weaned calves graze ahead of the cow herd during the spring. When the pasture growth rate starts to slow, the steers are shipped and the stocking rate on the paddocks is reduced to better match the forage production.

When making your grazing method choice, remember that a continuously grazed pasture only has about one third of its annual forage production consumed, where a rotated pasture system on a 5 – 7 day rotation will have about two thirds of its annual production consumed. In other words, on average, you can double the carry capacity of a continuously grazed pasture by converting it to a rotational system.

If you graze animals, you are a “grass” farmer. Forages harvested by the animals are the cheapest forages that you will ever harvest. Spring pasture management helps insure a better quality summer pasture as well.