Troy Bishopp asked this question back in December of 2014 when he was sharing the progress of his own winter grazing program. This is what we found out then. If you have more to add to this, please share it in the comments below!
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!
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, in his series back in 2014, Troy Bishopp felt that one of his pastures was probably getting more use and more trampling than he’d like because that’s where the animals walked to water. That means he would have to adjust that pasture’s use in the spring or summer to make sure that the plants get the recovery time they 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 free grazing charts from 2017 that Troy provides every year. You can look at them to get your creative juices flowing, and then stay tuned for the 2018 versions coming in the spring.
Thanks to the National Grazing Lands Coalition for making this article possible. Click on over to see the great work they do for all of us. Thank them for supporting On Pasture by liking their facebook page.
Save the Date! The 7th National Conference on Grazinglands is December 2 – 5, 2018 in Reno. You’ll want to be there.