Saturday, April 20, 2024
HomeGrazing ManagementTake Stock of Your Pastures Now to Adjust Your Grazing Plan

Take Stock of Your Pastures Now to Adjust Your Grazing Plan

Victor Shelton, out kneeling in his field. (I really wanted to say outstanding in his pasture, but I couldn't find a picture of him standing!)
Victor Shelton, out kneeling in his field. (I really wanted to say outstanding in his pasture, but I couldn’t find a picture of him standing!)

Spring is finally here. Even though some days lately haven’t really seemed too spring like there’s no stopping it now. If you haven’t already, it is a good time to get out and walk or take the ATV and assess the conditions of each paddock so you can start planning out the year. I generally take a few notes, or at least mental notes, of what could or should be grazed first.

Several years ago I took a white board, one that uses erasable markers, and created a layout of all my pastures with some thin black tape. Using markers, I can track enter and exit periods and rest on this board and also mark any production information I need to note. If being strip grazed, an arrow indicates the direction of movement and timeframes. I try to remember to take a picture of the board for future reference before erasing too much. It is good reference data that helps me understand sometimes why something is looking or reacting the way it does.

Low clover and grassI was looking at some paddocks back in late March. One small area certainly appeared to have greened up a little quicker than areas around. At closer inspection it was nice and green, but the green was coming dominantly from a surge of white clover and some struggling orchardgrass and tall fescue. Ground cover was not at all where it should be. Tracking backwards, I found the last time it was grazed was the third week of October and I was out of town. The forage was not dormant yet and this area was overgrazed before I could get back, so I went back to my board and found I had underestimated the available forage and it got grazed harder than what it should have at that time of year.

If I had planned on frost-seeding additional legumes later in the winter, then this could be somewhat beneficial to opening up the sod a little and increasing the ability of that slick little seed to get sufficient seed to soil contact. Obviously, there was a fair seed bank of white clover present. The addition of improved varieties is usually still a good option though.

This scenario creates a few management issues. Number one, the field is going to require a little more rest now. If grazed too quickly, the competitive edge will be on the side of the clover. The grass will need a longer rest period to regain its strength. If the legumes get too much of a foothold, the ratio of legume to grass can get too high and bloat can become a problem. This situation generally starts when the clover exceeds more than 30% of the sward dry matter, but it is even more of an issue when the clover starts exceeding 40% of the dry weight. Visual dry weight estimates of clover tend to be underestimated. If it looks like 40%, it could be 50% or more. Finally, grass generally makes up the majority of the production of the pasture. If the grasses are set back too much then production will be reduced and weed stress will most likely increase.

A small area or even one or two paddocks like described above can be dealt with by allowing those areas to rest longer this spring before grazing them. If you have too many areas like this, it might be best to continue feeding hay a little longer. As the old Fram air filter commercial went, “you can pay me now or you can pay me later.”

Paddocks that were grazed too tight, too early last year also lack sufficient dry matter or lignin and therefore create a situation where ruminants have a harder time maintaining a good mat in the rumen and quickly get that “sloshy” sound to them. If you bumped into a cow in this condition, you can hear major sloshing around. It is this same cow that I’ve warned you in the past to not stand too close behind. She just needs some dry material to balance her rumen.

Grass in PaddockNow, if pastures were not overgrazed prior to dormancy last fall and also maintained with adequate cover over the winter then they should have good cover with no soil showing. There is a nice amount of dry matter left over from the previous year present and new green grass growth coming up through it. Though not as prominent to start with, the legumes will start increasing soon and make a beautiful stand of forage. Production on this site will be improved, weed issues less, and the carbon to nitrogen ratio will be better balanced allowing you to walk a little closer behind the cows if that is your desire. These areas will also tolerate more grazing under wetter conditions as compared to the first site and these fields make a nice place to calve. Ideally, 80% of your pastures should look like this come spring.

I’ll end this edition with a comment on cover and the start grazing timeframe. Cover is very important. As the pastures begin greening back up, it is very important to not start grazing too quickly. As the plant begins to green up, it first starts to rebuild its solar panel. Photosynthesis is needed to build back new roots and reserves. The more photosynthesis occurring per acre, the more carbon there is and more potential for increasing soil organic matter. Photosynthesis needs leaf surface area, so that solar panel can move forward. When leaf is removed too early by grazing, the solar panels capability is greatly diminished. We also do not want any bare soil. We want all of the energy from the sun to be captured by that green solar panel. We do not want that energy wasted on heating up bare soil which can increase oxidation of carbon, we want it converted to energy in plants.

Pastures that have had little to no grazing over winter or were stockpiled and not grazed yet are certainly where you should be grazing right now. Year-round grazing systems plan to have sufficient forage to graze during this timeframe and generally are not waiting for spring green up.

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Victor Shelton
Victor Shelton
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.


  1. Thank you for the information on what we should be grazing this time of year. Now hopefully my leftover stockpile will make it a few more weeks.

  2. This week we’re starting to see the first glimpses of soil out from under the snow! It’ll be a while before the forages start to grow.

    East Montpelier VT

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