Believe it or not, sometime in the next 40 days you will be turning animals out to pasture. Some of you will have a plan and decide when it’s the right time for the land and animals, some of you will open the barn doors using the same recipe as the last 10 years and some will open up the farm to grazing because you’re out of options and money.
How you make decisions at this critical time will heavily influence the entire grazing season.
I fully admit that I’ve been in all these situations over my 28 years of managing grasslands. It allows me to broach this subject with some vigor. To me, the first grazing of spring is always difficult. You’ve got animals transitioning their rumens to high protein rocket fuel, the weather is very unpredictable with a good chance of mud and you have to somehow predict grass production within a sward that has clumps of orchardgrass and a low carpet of everything else. How do you get the animals to just take one bite and move on anyway?
Do you want to be more in control of your first grazing this year and create a better situation for the whole year? Here’s the unfortunate secret: You should have thought about it last year! It’s called knowing your feed inventory and forage demand and getting it down on a grazing chart.
My enthusiastic, pasture-prophet friend and dairyman, Cliff Hawbaker from Chambersburg, PA got me fired up about this subject because he threw down the gauntlet saying, “The grazing management bar is way too low.” Being that Cliff is also passionate about making money and carving out family time, I listened intently.
In getting a handle on the stress of early spring turnout and doing it for all the right reasons, he developed a simple tool based on the old way of accounting. He calls it the “Pasture T Account”, where pasture and hay production are on one side of the T and the animal forage demand is on the other for the entire year. He monitors and adjusts the account numbers in June and November always planning out 6 months in advance to have a surplus of feed on hand so he has flexibility in his pasturing decisions.
So how does this help me now with 40 days to go? It’s never too late to start thinking, planning and making more informed decisions about your impending grazing season.
Know Your Feed Needs
At this time of year, it’s invaluable to take stock of what feed you have on the farm, how many animals, how much they’re eating daily, how available local feed is and at what price, and how the pastures are coming on and which ones may be ready first. My grazier friend, Rob Moore says, “A bale fed in early spring and waiting till the grass is ready will be worth 4 bales of summer grass production,” not to mention what it can add in the way of fertility.
Don’t Graze Too Early
Unless you’re reducing grass competition in an effort to over-seed a pasture or achieve some other goal, grazing too early means reducing forage all summer long. “Early spring grazing damages plants and limits herbage production by removing leaf area from grass that has not recovered from winter dormancy,” says Lee Manske, range scientist at NDSU’s Dickinson Research Extension Center. “That reduces the forage available to livestock later in the season and decreases profits.”
Pastures should not be grazed until the 3 to 4-leaf stage or when the plants are at least 6 to 8 inches tall. If you have a high proportion of legumes in the pasture, do not graze until the plants are 8 to 12 inches tall. Significant research has showed grazing plants before the third leaf stage can result in the loss of over 60% of the potential forage yield. Grazing one week too early in the spring will sacrifice three weeks of grazing in the fall.
According to Manske, “When 25% of the grass tillers leaf area is removed during the first grazing period, the quantity of secondary tillers increases 38% during that same growing season and increases 64% to 173% during the second growing season. When 50% of the grass tiller leaf area is removed during the first grazing period, the quantity of secondary tillers decreases 53% that same growing season and decreases 63% to 144% during the second growing season.”
Because I work with farmers on grazing management, I have seen some pretty bad wrecks when animals are allowed on the pasture too soon and meander over all the fields taking all the forage and creating a “surface-of-the-moon” effect. They’ve basically ruined the pastures for the year. I’ve also seen the same farmer on the same land hold the animals until the right time and prosper just fine through the summer. It’s really about the grazing management decisions we make and not the animal’s fault.
In my experience, the taller sward with flash grazing just the tops has paid bigger dividends for the land, soil microbes, animal performance and my wallet. Tracking these kinds of decisions on a grazing chart and measuring the results over time is really critical to knowing if this strategy works.
Now the question becomes: Will you treat your springtime pastures with kindness this year?
Previously published In Lancaster Farming.