Thursday, July 18, 2024
HomeGrazing ManagementUH-OH! I'm running out of grass! What should I do?

UH-OH! I’m running out of grass! What should I do?

First off, let’s not panic.  You have options for stretching your forage supply.  One or a combination of the options below could improve forage utilization and your production. While these suggestions are best for folks in my neck of the woods (Tennessee) by contacting your local NRCS or Conservation District, or your extension agent, you’ll be able to figure out which of these can be adapted to your environment and needs.

Change your rotations to let grass regrow.

keep-calm-and-graze-on-2You can start by combining your herd and restricting them to one paddock (field) until other paddocks re-grow.  If you carry on with your rotations into pastures that haven’t had adequate time for regrowth, you’ll further slow recovery and could even kill your grass. When forage has recovered to five inches or taller you can move them into other pastures.  When heading back to rotation, limit pasture size to four days or less of forage at a time.  This typically increases forage utilization by 20% or more.

Graze fields traditionally used for fall hay.

This is a particularly good option when you consider harvest efficiency for both hay and strip grazing is typically 70%. That means you get the same utilization without the cost of making hay! (Note that if you don’t strip graze, utilization will drop to 50% efficiency.) Save on the high costs of fuel and let your cattle harvest the forage for you.

Wean early and let calves creep.

Weaning will reduce stress on the cow, so she’ll eat less, and you’ll extend your forage supply. Worried about how you might feed those young ones? Set your fences at “creep feed” height. Place your fence wire at about 42 inches above the ground to allow calves to free range choosing the best forage ahead of the cows. When weaned calves are grazing an adjacent pasture field to the mother cow, there is naturally less stress for both. Your calves will gain better and your cows will be in better condition so they will breed back sooner.

Feed your animals while forage re-grows.

You’ll want to look carefully at your bottom line if you’re thinking of choosing this option. If you have left over hay from a previous season you can use it here. You can also consider ruminant friendly by-products like soy hulls or corn gluten.


In areas where graziers have tall fescue, many graziers choose to stockpile it, setting aside 0.5 to 1 acre per cow. This extends the grazing season and provides higher quality grazing. Many producers stockpile tall fescue without fertilizing with nitrogen. This is a consideration especially when fertilizer prices are high. But by fertilizing, you can realize better returns. Fertilizing tall fescue with 60 pounds of Nitrogen (180 pounds of ammonia nitrate) will produce an extra ton of forage. At a cost of $0.50/pound of nitrogen x 60 pounds of nitrogen, you’ll spend $30/acre. Next, manage your cattle to get the most out of that ext a ton of forage. As I mentioned above, strip grazing animals will consume  70% of the 2,000 pounds. When you factor in waste, the real cost of your extra ton of forage is about $43. Compare that to hay. Hay costs about $80/ton and you lose about 10% or much more depending on your method of storage and feeding. That makes the real cost of hay about $88/ton or higher. As you can see, fertilizing and strip grazing saves you $37/ton.

Cattle_saleReduce your herd numbers.

Some producers prefer to stock as if they are always in a drought, carrying about 20% fewer animals. Others prefer to focus on high production, and then make adjustments if necessary. Those folks typically have a list of which animals will go first, then second, then third, so that they can make decisions quickly if they have to reduce herd numbers. You can check out this On Pasture article for more guidelines for selecting which animals should go.

Consider leasing additional pasture.

This is hard to do in an emergency because everyone around you is probably having similar challenges. But it never hurts to look.

Over-seed pastures with winter annuals in preparation for potential problems next year.

It’s best to seed cool season annuals into warm season pastures. This typically isn’t feasible unless your grass/tall fescue stand is less than 50% and even then it is questionable. But in an emergency, it is an option. In our area spring oats provide the quickest growth in the fall but die out during the winter. Winter oats are another option. Seed 4 bushels of oats by Oct 1. Rye is second quickest growing. Seed 2-3 bushels/acre prior to October 15 for fall growth. Wheat seed 2-3 bushels/acre by October 1. Ryegrass generally just provides late winter quality forage the same time that tall fescue is growing. Check with your local NRCS and Conservation District Staffs, or your Extension agent to see what will work for you. Good luck.  You can make it through this!

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Greg Brann
Greg Brann
Greg has a BS degree in Plant and Soil Science from the University of TN, Knoxville with special emphasis on animal science and landscape design. He worked as the State Grazing Land Soil Health Specialist for 23 of his 40-year tenure with NRCS. With more than 40 years of land and pasture management, Greg has had the privilege of watching his plans transform land under the great care of land managers. More than 200,000 acres have been transformed by his attentive planning. Greg is a featured speaker at many conferences and grazing schools around the country. His private consulting practice, Synergistic Grazing Management, provides land management planning to farmers, ranchers, land preservation organizations, and public land managers. He has developed land management plans as varied as the 100,000 acres at Fort Campbell Military Base to diversified farms of 25 acres. Looking past symptoms to discover and resolve root issues, his plans provide practical ideas to help you reach your goals. Greg hosts an annual “Pasture Walk” that brings together farmers, researchers, and ag and environmental specialists to maintain a space for difficult discussions and friendly conversations around synergistic land management. His deep understanding of plant communities as indicators of land productivity has made him a stead resource for land owners and managers passionate to understand nature’s ability to regenerate land.


  1. enjoyed reading this thanks! Sounds like good advice to me. We don’t fertilize because we’re cheap…unless you count the round bales we buy and feed out over the winter along with our stockpiled forages. Wherever we feed those bales we have an much improved sward come the next year.

  2. I live in Nebraska, therefore our droughts are a lot drier than they are in Tennessee.
    The advice to use nitrogen fertilizer does not sound wise on many counts.

    My neighbor used fertilizer on his meadow and because of the drought, it just burned it up and he did not have any to put up. Nitrogen can burn the roots when there isn’t enough moisture to utilize it properly.

    Next we run into the issue of nitrate accumulation in the forage. This can be deadly to your livestock. If you use nitrogen fertilizer and there isn’t enough moisture to properly utilize it, the nitrate will accumulate in the lower parts of the plants to cause serious problems to livestock eating it.

    Nitrogen fertilizer increases tonnage, but not necessary feed. If only nitrogen is used, many of the amino acids will be deficient even though the test for crude protein will show good protein levels. The problem is that crude protein is only a multiplier of the nitrogen in the forage and not the balance of actual amino acids. Proteins are only as good as to the availability of the deficient amino acid. Amino acids that cannot be used needs to be broken down and voided using up energy that could be used for other purposes ( the no carb diet).

    The best part of the forage is usually the top 6 inches. The extra growth you get will be fiber bulk. Yes, you have more tonnage to sell, but not necessary anymore feed for gain and health.

    Even though here in Nebraska we have a lower annual precipitation, I have noticed the difference between wet years and dry years. The cattle perform better in the dry years since the nutrient density is greater. It is hard to maintain high nutrient density in forage when there is an abundance of moisture and not the fertility to go with it. The plants with plenty of moisture will reuse the nutrients that it can, by removing them from the older parts of the plant. This causes us to have more tonnage, but no more nutrients than when we started. When you use extra nitrogen fertilizer and the plants grows more, any other nutrient that is deficient will also be reused in the plant. Once again, extra growth, but not extra nutrients.

    Proper rotation and rest is the best defense against drought. Building deep roots helps reach more moisture and more nutrients. Build up of organic matter increases water infiltration and water holding capacity of the soil. More organic matter increases nutrient capacity and bio activity that releases bond nutrients and makes them available to plants. Some of this is covered in The $200 Cover Crop Bump.

    “Now, when he takes soil tests, he finds the organic matter in the soil has increased from less than 2% into the 3% range and climbing. He’s also seeing phosphorus and potassium (P and K) going up, without having added any himself. “

  3. I have 8 – 1200 pound round bales remaining from my winter feed and feed it while allowing the stock to also graze in a 1/4 size pasture allowing for regrowth of grasses.
    Those 8 bales should last around two months and by then I should have enough grass to cover the remaining summer season here in Northwestern Montana to keep my grass growing for the next graze.

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