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Are You Over-Grazing: What’s in Your Plan?

By   /  April 14, 2014  /  Comments Off on Are You Over-Grazing: What’s in Your Plan?

These conversations between an Advisor and a couple of graziers are great for insights into what you might be getting right or wrong.

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Over-Grazing Situation 1:  How Low Can You Go?

After a mid-June walk through the pasture system at Grazier1 Dairy Farm, the questions begin…….

Grazier1: What do you think of my pastures?

Grazing Advisor:  It looks like they have been over-grazed.

District Conservationist and Grasslands Specialist evaluating an intensive grazing system that is utilizing a 3 week rotation of cattle grazing.  The area on the right has been grazed for 3 weeks while the area on the left has rested and is ready for grazing.  NRCS Photo Gallery

District Conservationist and Grasslands Specialist evaluating an intensive grazing system. NRCS Photo Gallery

Grazier1:  You mean severely grazed?  I always allow full re-growth of the plants before putting the herd in.  At least 3 weeks rest, and up to 8 weeks when the growth rate is slowest.  The sward is fully green and lush before I let it be grazed.  I usually manage a grazing so that no more than 50% of the total forage available is eaten, but sometimes I do let them eat more.  That’s what you think you’re seeing, right?  That some of it may have been severely grazed?

Grazing Advisor:  Well, yes, I expect that it has been severely grazed sometimes, if not most of the time for a number of years.  But what I am noticing is the general stunted size of your individual plants, their whole plant and leaf size are small for the species, the amount of space between plants, and the even height of nearly all your sward, with the occasional small clump of deeper green, larger, and clover-enhanced forage plants.  There’s hardly anything taller than 6 inches in your whole pasture.

Grazier1: So how do those characteristics tell you that it has been over-grazed?  You know I have given the pastures enough days rest!

Grazing Advisor:  The evenness of plant height, all below 6 inches tall in every pasture, even seen before I walked into your pastures, was my first clue.  You are grazing dairy cows, and there is nothing big enough for them to get their tongues around.  The dominant grass species are stunted, low-growing bluegrasses and fescues, with an occasional stunted orchardgrass and some left-over reed canary in the wetter sections.  The white clover straggling around is puny and light colored.  Where there is a manure pat you see some darker green, larger plants, with some vigor, and red clover in the mix.  Even those are only 6 inches tall, and they’re growing only directly from the manure.  All of the plants show that they have been over-grazed for several or many years, and they would not grow taller than 6 inches before heading out to seed.  And there’s even moss and lichens taking up some of the space between plants, where the ground geranium and bedstraw are not dominant.

Grazier1:  But I don’t have weeds like burdock, thistle, golden rod, parsnip, or even milk weed!  The pastures are nice and even, neat, like a golf course.  I like it looking this way, I never have to clip – and the cows are doing alright.  We’re making 30 lbs per cow per day on no grain, and I haven’t had to start feeding them any stored feed yet.  I have plenty of other ground to add-in all summer, after we take off first cut in July.  And I already sold 5 head to make sure there’s plenty of pasture………

Hmmm……. What’s Your Assessment of this Situation?  Does it feel familiar to you?

Situation 2:  Left-overs are Deceiving

After a mid-June walk through the pasture system of Grazier2 Dairy Farm …………..

Grazier2:  So, why do you think I’ve had to start feeding hay already this year?  Is it climate change?

Grazing Advisor:  There has been ample moisture and the temperatures haven’t been extremely warm yet.  Your pastures from a distance appear to have a lot of feed in them, but walking in them shows some issues of severe grazing this season, and probably some over-grazing that has been going on for a few years.

pastureclosegrazing1Grazier2:  Well, I agree about the severe grazing this year, as I made sure to keep ahead of the spring flush by getting them out as soon as it was greening up a bit, back in mid-April.  But over-grazing I don’t get – I never let the cows back in before 3 weeks, and there’s still lots of left-overs they haven’t eaten.  I think these plants have just ‘run out’.  I think I should re-seed.

Grazing Advisor:  Well, generally 3 weeks is not enough rest for full re-growth and full photosynthesis from mid-June on.  And starting your grazing that early, depending on how you moved the herd, probably set the stage for over-grazing, severe grazing, and no grazing wedge to be established.  Notice that the areas that have been grazed this season are full of white clover and bluegrasses, and the more productive species like orchardgrass, ryegrass, and tall and meadow fescue are strong only where there has been rejection due to manure or urine concentrations.  Now, if you had more of the larger plant species in the grazed areas, I would blame only severe grazing this season, but white clover and bluegrass dominance in a dairy cow pasture indicates that over-grazing has been happening – maybe little by little – over a few year’s time.  This can be corrected with better management: no more over-grazing, no more severe grazing this year, and some strategic clipping right away.  The clipping is ideal if done within a day after the cows leave the pasture – or right before they go in – and now lower than 4 inches.  The idea is to get everything back to a vegetative, fast-growth rate.  It will need to be done in sync with the grazing, and it would be best if you could add in some acreage from 1st cutting to pull them off this a while, or start feeding them something like 50% of their dry matter from stored feed, and slowing their movement through the system.

Grazier2:  If I start feeding them now I won’t have enough feed for winter!  And if I clip everything, there won’t be anything to graze.  I have a hay meadow that I always bring into grazing by mid-July, but this is too soon!

Overgrazed plant

Overgrazed plant

Grazing Advisor:  Your system and history you’ve told me show that over-grazing has caused your pastures to incrementally produce less feed for several years.  If you take these steps now, and we plan out in detail your grazing and feeding for the rest of this season, and adjust it according to our weekly pasture walks, I am certain you will feed out no more than usual, and you will see your pastures start to recover their former yield and vigor.  If you do not ramp up your management in this manner, then you can expect to feed more stored forage this year, have less benefit from grazed feed, and see your pasture system degrade rapidly in years to come.  Now, let’s take a closer look at the herd, and your other groups of animals, and see what they’re telling us about the amount of feed and feed quality they are getting……………………  And then let’s get started on your detailed grazing plan and monitoring schedule!

Well, is anything like this going on with your grazing system?  Get that plan in place!  

Remember, The Grass Whisperer put some great charts together to get you started.  AND THEY’RE FREE!  🙂  


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About the author

Independent farm advisor & grazing consultant out of Ryegate, VT (802)535-9067 partnering with Dairy Consulting Group, LLC ( and Agri-Nutrition Consulting, Inc. ( Willie was born into a Vermont dairy farm family in the 1960s. His parents sold the 30-cow herd in 1968, but Willie pursued his interest in farming by visiting farms with his Extension Dairyman father, showing dairy cattle throughout New England, and then working on Vermont farms from his early teens until his mid-20s. After graduating from UVM in 1985 with a B.S. in Animal Science – Dairy Herd Management, Willie expanded his herdsman experience from dairy cows to dairy goats at The Barnyard Chorus goat dairy, in Brookfield, Vermont. (Real Vermonters DO milk goats!) In 1988, Willie was hired as the last “County Ag Agent” for the UVM Extension Service in Washington County, Vermont. For 15 years, Willie was a key player in bringing ‘sustainable agriculture’ into the mainstream of education, research, and on-farm technical assistance, delivering a cadre of tools including: grass-based ruminant/dairy herd management, intensive/planned grazing, Holistic Management®, cultural pest management, diversified/alternative farming, natural/organic farming, soil health/quality, and financial/business management. In this position, Willie was mentored by many gracious dairy and livestock farmers, including Dairy Consulting Group, LLC colleague, Brian Stone. From 2005 - 2013 Willie was the staff dairy & livestock farm advisor with NOFA-Vermont. He helped nearly 100 Vermont dairy farms transition to certified organic, and provide in-depth technical assistance to the 200 certified Vermont dairies, and many other farmers, from grazing and forage management, to herd husbandry and nutrition, and business planning and farm financial management. Willie has helped dozens of farmers develop and implement farm business plans through the VT Farm Viability Program. Second only to being on a farm regularly as an advisor, coach, and ‘critical observer’, bringing farmers together for local, on-farm discussions and workshops is a favorite approach used by Willie for over 25 years. Willie and wife Martha have been blessed with ten children, and with owning and operating a homestead farm in Ryegate, Vermont. They raise and graze cattle and other critters, and grow food and herb crops for the family and local use.


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