There has been an increasing push towards lengthening the grazing season in order to feed less hay, and with good reason. Winter feed is often one of the most expensive components of the cow-calf year. By reducing the amount of time spent feeding stored feeds, producers can realize significant savings in feed costs, labor, and machinery costs.
Of course, grazing into and through the winter comes with many challenges, but one of the simplest ways to start is by gradually extending the amount of time livestock graze in the fall. This requires management and planning, however, and is not necessarily as simple as leaving the cows in the same pasture longer. Management strategies will differ depending on the plant communities and goals of the producer.
Tame pastures can be an excellent option for fall grazing. Introduced cool season grasses will often green up and show some regrowth with the moisture and cooler temperatures of fall. If pastures have received adequate rest since the last grazing period, these introduced grasses (especially smooth brome, Kentucky bluegrass, etc.) can handle fall grazing well without impacting future productivity. Hay fields, in particular sub-irrigated or meadow fields, can often regrow enough to provide a bit of late season grazing. Fall can also be a good time to intentionally stress undesirable cool season grasses in a heavily invaded pasture to try to restore native species. When using this strategy, managers should take care to ensure they are limiting severe grazing to the appropriate areas and are not negatively impacting desirable plant communities.
Native range sites can produce excellent dormant season grazing, but can also be more sensitive to repeated grazing within the same year. Fall grazing on native range requires more planning to avoid negative impacts to the plant community; a native pasture may not be suitable for fall grazing unless it has received a full growing season of deferment, was grazed lightly early in the season, or ideal moisture conditions have provided excellent regrowth. In dry years, it is likely better to err on the side of caution and avoid grazing native sites twice during the growing season. One good strategy is to rest native pastures through the fall and use crop residue, cover crops, or tame pastures until dormancy occurs on native range in winter. Many native grasses cure well and can be used as an excellent source of standing forage through the winter.
Fall Forage is Still Susceptible to Overgrazing
Regardless of the plant community, the principles of sound grazing management still apply during autumn. One common mistake is to assume that plants can be grazed shorter during the fall because the bulk of the growing season is over. However, this is an important time for plant and range health. It is just as important to leave adequate residual material to ensure plants have adequate root reserves for spring regrowth; this is especially important in drought years or for pastures that have been grazed recently. Similarly, adequate residual in fall and winter protects plant crowns, and catches snow for moisture and to protect plants from extreme temperatures. Grazing too severely, except when addressing specific management goals, will only serve to cause a long term decline in pasture health and productivity. Additionally, the season of use should be rotated among pastures to prevent dominance of one plant type and support diversity.
As with anything else, these management changes come with new challenges that should be carefully considered when weighing the pros and cons of a new system. Challenges with grazing later in the year are primarily centered around bad weather: Is shelter readily accessible? Are the pastures accessible to deliver feed or bring livestock home? Are water sources reliable in cold temperatures? These obstacles can often be overcome, but require planning and forethought.
The Bottom Line
In closing, grazing farther into the fall can be an excellent way for producers to begin extending the amount of time livestock are harvesting their own feed, and limiting time spent in a tractor delivering expensive stored feed. This can help improve the long term economic and environmental sustainability of the ranch, but does not happen overnight. Contact SDSU Extension for assistance with planning and additional resources for making this transition.