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Managing to Keep Up With the Grass

By   /  June 8, 2015  /  5 Comments

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cowsFor many of us this spring, we’ve had typical weather: unpredictable. Forage growth and quality has really been good for some and with some of the early warm days and adequate moisture in most areas, it had the potential to get completely out of control. When that happens, the question of stocking rate is generally one of the first things that comes to mind. How do I control spring madness and still have adequate forage later in the year? That question can make you stop and think a bit, especially with unpredictable weather.

Like I mentioned in May, management should be geared towards controlling seed head production. Well, if that didn’t happen, now what? The first thing I’ll say here is you are not alone, and your animal numbers are probably close to where they should be so don’t panic. During this rapid growth phase, I’m actually more worried about an operation that has no growth and the livestock has kept up with the forage. If you are short of forage this time of year, you won’t have much if anything later in the year when the growth curve for our cool season forages dips due to hotter, drier conditions. Those shortfalls will have to be overcome by selling livestock or buying/feeding supplemental hay/feed. If that is what you want to do, I wish you the best of luck. I prefer to keep the animals on pasture and eating forages.

There has been quite a lot of hay baled up the past couple weeks. Yields slightly less than normal are more than perhaps a lack of adequate fertility, but a slight reduction in bulk dry matter due to grasses maturing slightly quicker than the average. Warmer and drier conditions in some areas a few weeks ago spurred the stress factoring earlier maturity, and unless you are grazing a fairly fast rotation with heavy numbers, it got ahead of you.

Time to clip or strip graze

Time to clip or strip graze

I would still continue to graze, letting the livestock take the best, hopefully slowing down the rest, and in the process reduce or knock down a high percentage of the seed heads. Clipping pastures while the seed head is still green and in what I would consider the milk or early dough stage of the seed, can do a fairly decent job in maintaining the remaining forage in decent quality. Once that seed head starts to dry off, too much energy has been utilized for seed production and the quality of the remaining plant will not be as good. When it comes to tall fescue and orchardgrass, but especially the tall fescue, the longer you wait to clip it and the more mature it is, generally the less it is consumed by the livestock if given a choice. If you would get down and stick your nose in it you’d understand some of the reason, not only is it lower in nutrition, but it is also rather jagged from mature stems.

If you let it get too far along, you are much better off to graze the site ideally with maintenance animals, not cows in peak lactation or growing animals who depend on higher quality. This grazing should be done in small strips or allotments letting them eat the best and laydown the rest. This does an excellent job with some good rest of revitalizing the forages for a later grazing period. There is a huge amount of hay that is put up in this stage. This will be fairly low quality hay usually with lower digestibility and crude protein in the 6-7% range. There is normally a lot more waste to this hay when it is fed as animals pick through it trying to find good stuff…sorry girls, no ice cream here, just broccoli. You are also removing nutrients from the field that will need to be replaced. I still believe that any field that is connected to the main grazing/pasture system should be capable of being grazed and detached fields be utilized solely for hay production. No good reason to cut it for hay if you can graze it.

If you are lacking in forage already, most would automatically assume you are overstocked. Overstocking is more a matter of time than numbers. The amount of time that animals are allowed to be on a particular area is more important than the number of animals. One cow left on a single acre all spring is worse than 150,000 pounds of animals there for one day. Why, because the one cow will keep grazing the same areas over and over again which in the long run reduces plant health and diversity and encroachment of more and more undesirables as she keeps eating select forages and avoids the rest. You put a large group in on there for a day, between the mere amount of forage needed and less selectivity due to numbers and competition, everything is grazed much more evenly and the stand increases in diversity and quality over time along with better distribution of waste products.

Keeping the plant from the start in more of a vegetative stage with a reduced amount reaching seed production ensures more leaf area for photosynthesis, and more root production. More roots, more plant growth potential, more resilience to weather extremes.

A cow buffet, ready to graze

A cow buffet, ready to graze

So, if you are losing the battle on trying to keep forages from maturing, graze hard and fast, clip as you need to but before the seed heads matures, and strip graze at high intensity for short durations to bring back the rest. You might be surprised how much more grass you produce. Cut for hay as early as possible, but only if you have to. Jim Gerrish has stated something along the lines of, “a producer will feed as much hay as he puts up; the more he puts up, the more he will feed.” This is really the truth. I’ve watched guys cut so much hay that they had to feed hay at the same time. Put the cows to work, they don’t mind and quit turning quite as many wheels.

Lastly, it is a good time to be thinking about planting summer annuals. Summer annuals including sorghum-sudan, sudangrass, millets, brassicas (turnips and the like) and a host of other things make for some good summer grazing during the cool season forage slump periods and allow those perennials to rest longer and maintain more growth that almost always boosts fall production. Annuals also make good forage when renovating pastures, especially if you are wanting to make sure you eliminate most or all of the existing vegetation; it gives you a nice window to grow something that can be utilized and observe that the field is ready to reestablish and void of the previous lower quality forage. Perennial cool season forages can then be replanted starting in early August through mid-September.

Keep all tall cool season forages such as tall fescue, bromes, and orchardgrass no shorter than 4 inches; that is what I call the STOP grazing height. Re-enter and start grazing again when forages have reached at least 8 to 10 inches and then remove again when the shortest plants are 4 inches. That residual material is enough to maintain the solar panel and keep that plant growing and producing.

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About the author

For more than 25 years, Victor Shelton, Indiana agronomist and grazing specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, has provided advice about grazing’s best practices. He travels across the state conducting pasture walks, working one on one with farmers and participating in grazing talks. He also writes a newsletter called "Grazing Bites" as a way to talk about current and seasonal grazing issues and what farmers need to be prepared for.

5 Comments

  1. Kevin Roberts says:

    This is a great article. I really struggle with getting my timing correct for the season.
    Reading this article helps keep me motivated and on the right path.
    On the subject of summer annual,does anyone have any experience planting summer annuals into existing sod pastures? Without killing the existing pasture? I was thinking of grazing hard to weaken some fescue, then no-tilling sudan or similar type annual.

    • Rachel Gilker says:

      Hi Kevin,

      We’re glad you liked the article. Here’s a bit of information on some summer annuals you might be considering:
      Adding Summer Annuals to Your Pasture
      Drought Concerns: Milo Forage Sorghum Alternatives
      Thanks for reading!
      Rachel

    • Victor Shelton says:

      Kevin, I know what you are wanting to do and it is possible, but pretty precarious. I’ve had some luck doing this with sudan grass and cow peas immediately after high density short duration grazing under drying conditions that created a very slight and short “dormancy” period (and that is not a true dormancy) which provided just enough time for the drilled sudan and or cow peas to emerge and start growing before the existing forage starts to regrow. If there is adequate moisture, the existing forage will usually out compete the seedlings. I can tell you I’ve wasted a lot of seed experimenting! Annuals just do better with no competition and most will be a total failure if competition is not controlled.

    • Josh Vaillancourt says:

      I’ve been wanting to try no-till seeding into sod as well, but as Victor points out, it can be an expensive trial. My thought was to not only graze hard and early in the season, but re-graze quickly (and hard again), after the plants have called on their carbohydrate reserves but not replenished them. If the existing sod is struggling to come back a third time, maybe those summer annuals stand a fighting chance.

      • Victor Shelton says:

        Josh, I’m not sure that is what you really want to do. First of all, I wouldn’t want to restrict intake on the cows that much. Unless done for an extended period and starting very early, you will probably have a patchwork of forage heights as they select for quality. If the forages have been in good health and moisture is present, the remaining roots will respond to rebuild that solar panel as quickly as possible for survival and you raise the risk of increased compaction and weeds. By laying down more mature, higher carbon plant material in a high density short duration type grazing method, the cattle will eat the best and laydown most of the rest, creating a nice mulch. Forages in this stage generally take a little longer to respond creating a tiny window. Too much moisture, won’t work. Too dry, won’t work. It is usually just to risky, but if I saw that the present conditions were promising, then I might jump.

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