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Does Grazing Winter Stockpile Slow Spring Regrowth?

By   /  December 8, 2014  /  7 Comments

It’s a good question and one that has come up as we follow Troy Bishopp through a fall and winter of custom grazing dairy heifers on stockpiled pasture. Fortunately, we’ve got answers!

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Photo of cool season, stockpiled grasses courtesy of ag.umass.edu

Photo of cool season, stockpiled grasses courtesy of ag.umass.edu

The answer to how much future forage production you’ll get from a grazed plant is no different for grazing stockpile than it is for grazing pasture any other time of the year: “It depends on how much residual you leave.” No matter what time of year you graze, you can reduce a plant’s ability to regrow by grazing off too much so that the plant doesn’t have enough resources to respond.

According to Colorado State University’s M.J. Trlica, removal of dead leaf material and stems during dormancy has little direct effect on the plant. Accordingly he says, “Grazing during the fall and winter periods, after plant growth is complete and plants are dormant, can be much heavier than at other periods of the year. This old material is of little value to the plant, as photosynthetic capability will be low, at best.”

BUT, dormancy isn’t some kind of super power, so you’ll have to manage your fall pastures just the way you manage them the rest of the year: with care to leave enough behind so the plant can wake up in the spring and start growing at full speed. You need to watch out for too much trampling that can cause injury to crowns of plants, reducing their ability to grow again. In addition, removing too much mulch and litter may cause greater temperature extremes near the soil surface and could adversely affect growth the following year. As Trlica tells us, “Although fall and winter grazing has the least detrimental effect on grasses, there may still be some negative impact if grazing is heavy.”

What About Tillering?

Perennial grasses do most of their reproduction through tillering, and not seed production.  Tillers are those parts of the grass plant that are capable of producing another new plant.  It makes sense then that you want to manage your grazing so that you don’t damage too many tillers.

How you graze to protect your tillers will depend on where you live.  When Troy asked Jim Gerrish, author of “Kick the Hay Habit,” for his input, Jim said:

“In rangeland environments with annual precip less than 15-20 inches grasses only have one spring flush of tillers and then a secondary flush in autumn. In a 30”+ precip environment with grasses like orchard grass  fescue, ryegrass, etc., there is ongoing tillering throughout the growing season so the plant is much less dependent on single lead tillers for next spring’s production.”

Those of us in more brittle, arid environments are going to need to be more protective of our tillers. And of course it all depends on the kinds of grasses you have in your pastures as well, as different species have different tillering heights.

But I Just Want an ANSWER!

This is from Sid Bosworth's Handouts from the Webinar

This is from Sid Bosworth’s Handouts from the Webinar

I agree, it now sounds very complicated when all we really wanted was a single answer.  But since we all live in different places and have different management styles, it’s important to have some of this background so we can make good adjustments.

The closest I was able to come to a single answer comes from Sid Bosworth at the University of Vermont in his webinar on “Forage Plant Response to Defoliation.” He recommends letting grasses grow 3 to 4 leaves before beginning to graze them in the winter so that they have adequate energy reserves stored to make it through the winter. Then, if you graze them as stockpile, be sure to leave a 3 to 4 inch residue.

Is this the only right answer?  Probably not.  I’m looking forward to getting some good comments from our readers on this.  Let’s all share and learn together.

One Last Thing

There are always sacrifices and ways to mitigate for them.  For example, one of Troy Bishopp’s pastures is probably getting more use and more trampling than he’d like because that’s where the animals walk to water.  That means he may have to adjust its use in the spring or summer to make sure that pasture gets what it needs.  Maybe when you’re doing it, you hit one pasture a little too hard.  You’ll just adjust in the spring to take that into account.

Maybe the best thing you can do is keep track of how things went with notes on whatever grazing chart you use.  Here are the 2104 free ones you can look at, and then stay tuned for the 2015 versions coming in the spring.

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About the author

Publisher, Editor and Author

Kathy worked with the Bureau of Land Management for 12 years before founding Livestock for Landscapes in 2004. Her twelve years at the agency allowed her to pursue her goal of helping communities find ways to live profitably AND sustainably in their environment. She has been researching and working with livestock as a land management tool for over a decade. When she's not helping farmers, ranchers and land managers on-site, she writes articles, and books, and edits videos to help others turn their livestock into landscape managers.


  1. Gary Howie says:

    Our winter stockpiled grasses frequently have a small amount of green at the bottom. That green would likely be best if not grazed, but it is exactly what the cows want. Uniform grazing seems to be a concept alien to most cows, at least on our pastures that are not predominantly Western Wheatgrass. With other grasses (e.g., Intermediate Wheatgrass), some of the grass will be grazed to the ground, other of the same grass will be left largely intact. Our objective is to increase the variety of plants in each pasture, but about half of our grazing is on land that was previously farmed and then replanted usually to two plant species, one of which is alfalfa. For winter stockpile the alfalfa is only stems, which means many of these pastures are essentially monocultures at this time.

  2. Bob Gillaspy says:

    The keys to success are monitoring (you need to know what to look for) and responding to the results.
    The quickest way to grow forage is to have green leaf blades when the weather is good for plant growth. Make it easier on the plant to grow by leaving a few leaf blades on each tiller.

  3. Stan Boltz says:

    This is an interesting question to me. We were taught in the old days that the roots were the grasses’ carbohydrate reserve, which they drew from in the spring to start growth. More recently, plant physiologists have determined that carbohydrates cannot be translocated from the roots to the above-ground plant. And in the spring, only 5-10% of new grass growth is fueled by carbohydrates in the sheaths and the upper root/plant crown at the surface of the ground – the other 90-95% of new grass growth comes from photosynthesis from the new leaves themselves. So protecting the root/plant crown and leaving some sheathes seems to be critical for initiating new plant growth in the spring.

    Another aspect is what effect does “trampling” have on grasses during the “dormant” period. I live in a fairly cold region, so after the first couple snowfalls, our snow cover tends to remain through the winter. I made an observation outside of my office last winter. There was a path in the snow that many people took on their way to their vehicles all winter long, and the snow got trampled and packed down on that path. Once the snow melted down to the ground level, people took other paths, because the exposed ground surface became muddy. What was the effect of that winter trampling on the lawn grass, Kentucky bluegrass? I have a picture of when the lawn started growing last spring, and you can easily see where the trampled snow path was.

    • mike says:

      Stan, Where’s the picture? What is the answer?

      • Stan Boltz says:

        I don’t know how to post a picture to this “blog”. I tried to just reply to Kathy’s original email and send the picture that way, but the email was rejected. I can send the picture if I have a valid email address to send to. Basically the grass was “dead” and brown on the path where people walked all winter, even though they stopped walking on it as soon as it got a little muddy. The grass on both sides of the path was growing and green.

        • Rachel Gilker says:

          Hi Stan,
          Perhaps you could post the picture to Facebook?

        • Richard Sparks says:

          Snow cover has a very dramatic insulating effect on biennial and perennial plants. Compacted snow conducts heat much better; bare ground even more so. Kentucky bluegrass is very sensitive to winter kill when tillers get too cold over winter. “Winterkill” seems to be worse on Kentucky bluegrass, orchard grass, tall fescue, etc. in colder climates. Also, exposure to sunlight can dry the soil out in the spring before temperatures are warm enough to allow tiller growth. A sudden drop in cold temperatures can kill early tillers if they are exposed.

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