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Here’s What Short Grazing Does to Spring Regrowth

Forages are really starting to grow; fall management does impact growth but not much on this plot with four inches of residual.

As you walk or drive your ATV around your pastures, you may notice differences in plant growth. The reasons for those differences can vary but include irregularities in fertility, last autumn’s stop grazing heights, soils, compaction, rest after grazing and the forages themselves.

Continuous grazing can be a contributor to differences in plant growth. Back in February, I talked about how fall management influences spring forage growth. Pastures that are continuously grazed throughout the winter, and especially those grazed continuously from the end of the last fall growth prior to going dormant, usually have compromised energy reserves. If kept grazed close with no deferment or rest, they will also have reduced root mass. This automatically reduces energy storage space and later resilience to drought conditions. Short roots have little reserve.

Zone grazing is another reason for growth differences. Zone grazing occurs when one end of the pasture is grazed heavier than the other. It is common with pastures with longer walking distances to shade, mineral or water, or a combination. The pasture, or rather forage, closest to the desired facility is almost always shorter than the part that is the farthest away and more frequently grazed.

Monitoring Results

I planned on placing some forage cages out prior to any spring growth, but only achieved getting them flagged. I measured the residual at that time and planned on looking at yield differences this spring at some point to assess the impact that residual post grazing forage heights had on yield. This gives me an opportunity to evaluate the impact of overwintering residual height on spring growth and yield. I will eventually dig, observe and note root presence on each site and any other noteworthy features. For now, I have only measured and estimated the dry matter present but will assess more later. Please note, for the most part, the plots are similar cool-season forages, managed the same way, and in the same field with only location influencing residual grazing heights.

Three areas were marked with end of the grazing period residuals of: one inch, two and a half inches, and four inches. The dry matter per acre inch ranged from 220 to 264 pounds. Recent measurements have compressed average forage heights of five and a half inches, nine inches and 15 inches.

In the marked areas, the regrowth dry matter per acre inch ranged from 245 to 255 pounds per acre inch. Dry matter totals per location were as follows:

• Original, overgrazed one inch plot yielded 1,348 pounds of dry matter on the April 27;
• Moderately, overgrazed two-and-a-half-inch residual plot yielded 2,295 pounds of dry matter; and
• The four-inch residual plot regrowth yielded 3,675 pounds dry matter per acre.

The two-and-a-half-inch residual plot yielded 170% over the one inch. The four-inch residual plot yielded 273% over the one inch.

After also noting the dominant forage species that were in each plot, this has probably been an issue for more than one season. The shortest plot was dominated by bluegrass, naturalized white clover and a little tall fescue. The middle-sized residual plot was dominated by red clover, tall fescue, and some bluegrass and forbs. The plot in the middle of the field was dominated by orchardgrass, tall fescue, and red and ladino clover. The shortest plot is closest to the main watering facility. The species that were the most tolerant to closer grazing are now the dominant species present. This too had an impact on the yield. Additional watering facilities would help to further reduce differences.

What does all this mean?

I suppose that the main point I would like to make here is pastures that are grazed tightly, especially prior to forages going dormant in the fall, will have reduced spring growth and most likely reduced seasonal growth than those pastures where ideal residual heights were maintained and most closer grazing occurred post dormancy.

Remember, always keep at least three to four inches of growth on most cool-season forages. That’s the shortest height you leave behind, not the tallest!

What you should be doing now

Most forages have already surpassed normal start grazing heights. Starting early and making sure to maintain minimum grazing heights for the forages is really the critical issue, but it also helps to keep the forages from getting too far ahead of you before you graze them again. Staging forages helps you keep more of the paddocks in better condition longer, with less need of haying or clipping.

I would still promote grazing for short periods, keeping the animals moving and never grazing closer than three to four inches whenever possible. If the forages start getting ahead of you, consider making the paddocks slightly larger and grazing the areas for shorter periods of time, letting the animals top graze to help slow down seed head production. The goal should be to maintain as much pasture as possible in what I’ve referred to in the past as “stage two” growth, quality vegetative leafy growth prior to seed head production. This quality forage with good intake will ensure good growth on growing animals, milk for lactating animals and also help to flatten the growth curve some, providing quality forages a little longer into the season.

Any fields that must be “skipped” can be clipped for later use, cut for hay or baleage, or left as is for maintenance animals. You need to try and keep the paddocks as vegetative as possible for growing animals. If you wait too long to re-graze them, you may get frustrated quickly in trying to play catch-up. It’s better to skip one and deal with it later.

Quite often there is no set ideal grazing pattern or set timeframe in trying to maintain quality forages. Instead, it is more of a game with changing rules, tactics and plays to try and overcome the challenges of the season. Every year is different. We need to be prepared with more than one tool in the toolbox. When forages are growing fast, rotate fast. When forages are growing slower, graze slower. Maintain as much as possible in vegetative form and deal with the excess wisely. We’ll talk about that more next time.

Remember, it’s not about maximizing a grazing event, but maximizing a grazing season! Keep on grazing!

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Reminders & Opportunities

Indiana Forage Council Grazing Schools – June 4-5 at SIPAC (Southern location), June 11-12 Rossville, IN (Northern location), Both sessions will be Friday 1-6 p.m. and Saturday 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m.. Attendees are being limited; register early. Southern school: Northern school: https://bit.Iy/3ulnYlg or call (812)678-4427.

More pasture information and past issues of Grazing Bites are available here.

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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.

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