Thursday, May 23, 2024
HomeGrazing ManagementIs Your Grass Getting Ahead of You? Here's What to Do

Is Your Grass Getting Ahead of You? Here’s What to Do

I have always been a promoter of forage/pasture staging.  It’s a way of making sure all your forage doesn’t mature at the same time, and instead remains as vegetative as possible for as long as possible. But, where drought is a factor, or when a cool spring suddenly warms up, make that extremely challenging. Here in Indiana where I live, the fields that were “just” grazed are even trying to go to seed because the grass decided to go into survival mode just to be on the safe side. This is also where I have to ask myself sometimes, “does the grass know something that we don’t?”  I’ll even go way out on a limb and say, could it possibly know what weather might lie ahead? Honestly, I don’t think so, but it sure appears that way sometimes. Early maturity could conceivably be tied to future drier conditions, but that would be assuming a lot.

The real topic at hand is how to manage this floodgate of maturing forage.

When forages are growing fast, move animals fast. When forages start slowing down, then slow the rotation down too. It is still important to keep the animals moving and never grazing closer than three to four inches whenever possible on cool season forages.

Photo by Jim Gerrish showing 4 to 5 inch residual of phase 2 grass.

When the floodgates are open though, you are usually better off top grazing. Top grazing is literally just that, allowing the animals to just graze off the very top one third or so of the plant. The goal should be to maintain as much pasture as possible in the “phase two” growth stage: quality vegetative leafy growth prior to seed head production.

We are past that now! Now, we just need to try and get forages back under some type of control. (If this is not a problem for you and forage is short, then you actually have a bigger issue.)

For most people, the first reaction is to cut it for hay. This can be a viable option, but quite often gets taken too far. I’ve seen a few people cut everything for hay, and there are some important ramifications of doing that First, a lot of nutrients are being removed and moved – ka ching $$ – enough said on that. Second, if the weather turns dry, you will end up having to feed that newly cut hay to the livestock much earlier, which is much less efficiently than if it was just grazed.

You never want to feed hay when you can be grazing except when doing so will provide needed rest for the pasture or prevent overgrazing, such as during a drought. On a few rare occasions, I’ve seen people feeding hay while making hay with cows watching with very puzzled looks on their faces. In that case, there are way too many wheels turning and gas burning and I don’t know how you pencil that out to show profit. If you know that a certain amount of forage is going to be needed to feed the herd, leave it and let the cows work for you more! They work for grass.

I’d much rather have a problem with too much grass than not enough grass. But as I mentioned earlier, I’d rather try and keep forages as vegetative as possible too. If you can’t top graze fast enough, and that is certainly possible right now, then mechanical topping might be warranted to help keep it vegetative and growing.

Mowing to Maintain Vegetative State

If you can’t graze fast enough to keep grass vegetative, then top the last paddocks that were grazed with the bushhog to delay having to return to those paddocks a little longer. This slight topping and deferment will usually reap benefits as long as sufficient moisture is available and can even help some if moisture is short.

To do this, raise the mower up enough to, ideally, only remove stems and seed heads and very little leaf matter.  Once leaf matter is removed, regrowth slows some because of the removal of good photosynthetic plant material.  Removal of stems and seed heads should not be a large amount of material.  Mowing deeper into the stand and laying down too much material not only removes some of that solar panel, but it also covers up a good bit of it, too. This slows regrowth and tillering – exactly what we want to promote.

In India cows are used to pull lawn mowers.

If you can’t mow it high enough then you have two choices; graze it or hay it. If you plan ahead and these runaway fields are ones that could use additional soil organic matter, improved soil health and/or nutrient cycling, then you are better off grazing them.  Strip-grazing them is then the best scenario to achieve those goals, allocating out strips or small blocks of this forage using high stock density for a very short time frame. The livestock will eat the best and lay down and help re-set the rest to a good growth stage. Grass that is “trampled down” is not wasted; it is mulch for moisture conservation and fertilizer for future growth. These fields are often some of the best stockpile for later use. This can be done even with mature forages that got skipped, but expect slightly less intake depending on the forages present.

Now, most producers do need some hay, and mowing it earlier rather than later means higher quality forage and probably more potential for increased regrowth. As any grass or legume plant matures, quality declines in terms of crude protein, energy and digestibility.  Figure out how much hay you think you will really need for winter use and then stop.  If you keep it vegetative, it is really not going anywhere.  Grazing it is still the most efficient use of it and is usually the easiest on your bottom line.  Remember, it’s not about maximizing a grazing event, but maximizing a grazing season!  Keep on grazing!

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 and Saturday 8-4:30.  Attendees are being limited; register early.  Southern school: Northern school: https://bit.Iy/3ulnYlg or call (812)678-4427.

National Grazing Conference – December 6-9, 2021, Myrtle Beach, SC.

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.


  1. Thank you for the helpful article. Your thoughts have confirmed my idea that if you must clip, clipping higher is better than lower.

    What might your thoughts be on how the higher setting affects the control of woody species, if a person wanted to set those back at the same time as clipping the grass to keep it vegetative? I am speaking with regard to pasture in south central Missouri, fescue country.

    • I should qualify my answer in that if clipping higher actually stimulates new growth and tillering in fescue and other cool season grasses, I agree clipping higher should be better. However, I dont know for a fact that clipping higher does stimulate new growth and tillering in fescue and other cool season grasses.

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