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What You Do This Spring Impacts Your Whole Grazing Season

By   /  March 29, 2021  /  1 Comment

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These tips from Troy were timely in 2014. They’re things we probably need to be reminded about every year! Enjoy!

Believe it or not, sometime in the very near future 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 ten years and some will open up the farm to grazing because you’re out of options and money.

The decisions you make at this critical time will heavily influence the entire grazing season.

Want to learn more from Troy? Click here to head over to his website: www.thegrasswhisperer.com

Want to learn more from Troy? Click here to head over to his website: www.thegrasswhisperer.com

I fully admit that I’ve been in each of the situations above over my 30 plus 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?  Start by knowing your feed inventory and forage demand and getting it down on a grazing chart.

Check Your Pasture T Account

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 in 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 is 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.

Click to open a full-size version and then save it to your computer so you can use it.

So how does this help me now?  It’s never too late to start thinking, planning and making more informed decisions about your impending grazing season.

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 the fertility. And crazy weather this time of year means we need to have the risk management plan of feed on hand anyway.

Thanks to Missouri Extension for the photo.

Thanks to Missouri Extension for the photo.

Don’t Graze Short in the Spring

Unless you’re reducing grass competition in an effort to over-seed a pasture or some other goal, overgrazing in the spring should be avoided. “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 North Dakota State University’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 on all the fields taking the land to the “surface of the moon”.  It 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.  It’s really about the grazing management decisions we make and not the animal’s fault.

Chart Your Progress

Tracking these kinds of decisions on a grazing chart and measuring the results over time is really critical to knowing if the strategy you choose works. I use the grazing charts I developed based on the ones that Greg Judy uses and the input of lots of farmers in my area. You can get your free grazing charts right here at On Pasture. Then check out the articles on how to use them so that you can get started off on the right foot.

Now the question becomes:  Will you treat your springtime pastures with kindness this year? If you do, they’re sure to treat you more kindly through the grazing season.

Thanks to the National Grazing Lands Coalition for making this article possible.

The 8th National Grazing Lands Conference is coming up in December and it’s one of On Pasture’s favorites. One of the things that makes it so great is that folks just like you are the speakers, sharing their great experiences. Learn more about how to be a speaker here. And learn more about the event here. Early bird registration ends March 31st. Sign up now and save $100!

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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 Comment

  1. Lealand Schoon says:

    The advice here applies in the northern plains states as well. We might refer to it as Grazing Readiness, 3.5 leaf stage on native cool season grasses. And then managing the livestock to grazed the tops off the lead tillers (that 25-33%); restores the rhizosphere soil microbe populations to increase mineral Nitrogen for plant growth. Thank you for sharing this story. Lealand Schoon-South Dakota

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