Friday, February 3, 2023
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Winter Grazing to Protect Soils

This month’s Grazier’s Focus is on managing our winter grazing to future forage. Victor Shelton adds to this by reminding us what to do when we’re dealing with a wet winter.

I’ve enjoyed several good autumn days and joked, “it can just stay this way and then turn nice!” But, winter is coming. I do enjoy the different seasons with each providing some traditional features, but my least favorite season is probably winter. Don’t get me wrong, there are some beautiful winter days – pristine, clean looking landscapes monotonously all covered white, hiding the scars of prior days and sometimes poor decisions.

Victor’s wife and sister aren’t the only ones that remember the winter of ’78. It was marked by the worst blizzard in the area’s history with heavy snowfall and winds up to 55 mph. Here you see James Truly’s truck buried in 20 feet of snow. He spent five days trapped inside before he was rescued.

My wife and her sister quite often refer to and compare winters to the “winter of ’78.” To them, it’s not only noteworthy weather wise, but also a bit of an age factor indicator. I’ve certainly not forgotten that winter. Literally mountains of snow that had to be dug through, not plowed, and multiple tractors gelling up, creating the need to feed silage completely by hand. No other winter since has dared to compare – that’s a good thing.

Lots of things have changed since then. Winter weather is one of them. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if it is a trend or a direction. Either way, winter is still challenging, just in a different way. Winters in the past almost always blessed us with extended frozen soil conditions. There is a lot of benefit to having some of that free concrete. I could graze or move hay around and even place hay on fields where I wanted to feed it, with no or little worries about rutting or excessive compaction. That is usually not the case now. The past couple of winters it seems I could count the length of frozen soil in days, not weeks.

When winters are mild and especially when they are also wet, soil conditions are just not as capable of handling a lot of winter use. If you want to graze under these types of winter conditions, then you’re going to have to be very careful how you do it.

Forage Quantity

One of the first things that you’re going have to pay attention to is the amount of forage that is available in that pasture. If you don’t have enough cover or residual or a decent heavy stand of forage, then your potential to cause damage with grazing increases.

Wondering how much forage you have? Troy Bishopp did this great video to show you the estimating process.

Ideally, you really need a total of about 3,000 pounds of dry matter per acre to be able to graze under wet soil conditions without causing some potentially long-lasting damage to the forage stand and the soil. That sounds like a lot, but it’s only about ten inches of dense forage, sometimes slightly less. A good healthy grass/legume stand can easily produce 250 to 300 pounds of dry matter per acre inch.

When forages have been allowed to regrow and are stockpiled for later use, not only has the above ground biomass increased, but also the below ground system. It is not a fail-proof system, but certainly does provide more resilience than pastures or systems have when they’ve been continuously grazed closer than ideal and thus lack the additional underground supportive structure.

There are also benefits to having that much growth on the surface. First, it is winter feed that can be utilized and allocated very efficiently without getting a tractor out or worrying about relocating manure the next season. It’s four-hoof automated. Second, what isn’t consumed is usually laid down on the soil surface to become litter or residue to protect the soil surface, provide some nutrients for the next seasons growth, improve infiltration of winter precipitation and buffer some of the hoof action under wet conditions.

Winter Grazing Damage

If you don’t have this cover and the associated root mass created from good cover, then your pasture will not fair nearly as well when grazed under wet conditions. Expect excessive pugging, soil disturbance, forage stand reduction and potentially long-lasting compaction. None of that is good, and depending on site conditions, the winter weather, and a few other factors, it’s a toss up which will be worse.

The most common indicator of grazing damage is increased weed presence and pressure the following season. You might have thought you faired well over winter until spring comes and suddenly you’re wondering, “Where did all these weeds come from?!” All that soil disturbance, loss of forage stand integrity, and competitive cover make perfect growing conditions for early successional annual weed species, especially foxtails and crabgrass, and more aggravating species like spiny pigweed and cockleburs. They’re always waiting to bounce back from old seed banks to try and reestablish themselves with a vengeance. These seedbanks are only prevented from sprouting by maintaining good cover and competition or mechanical and/or chemical treatment after the fact.

Feeding Hay on Pasture as a Winter Solution

Unrolling hay on pasture is a good option if soil conditions are good.

Feeding hay on pasture can absolutely reduce time in winter feeding areas and can also boost organic matter and nutrients to sites that need it. Rolling out those bales to feed them helps to more evenly distribute hay and livestock waste across a larger area. It also reduces the impact and time spent on any specific area. A large round bale fed within a ring or on a wet site can quickly turn the area around the bale to a soupy mess. Soil structure is heavily damaged. This is a good reason to try and feed either on frozen or dry soils or on a feed pad.

Feed pads can be built of rock or concrete. They should always be placed a good distance from any water body, yet convenient for access and ideally where wind protection is available for the livestock. Rows of large hay bales, a solid fence, a building, trees or topography can all provide a decent windbreak.

Want more bale feeding options? Here’s more from On Pasture.

Mistakes Will Happen. Here’s How to Adjust

Occasionally, a pasture is damaged from hoof action on wet soils no matter how much we try to prevent it. An unexpected rain during the grazing allocation or, more likely, more rain than expected for any given time frame can quickly compromise the integrity of the stand. It has certainly happened to me – especially when setting up areas to be grazed for a few days while I’m away. The plan can fail. The light drizzle that was predicted can turn into two or more inches of hard rain and the perfect allocation quickly was not enough.

If this has happened, make sure you assess pastures, paddocks, or areas of either, as they might be good candidates for some winter dormant overseeding. Assess the damage. How much bare ground do you see? If you have 80 percent or more live plant cover, then I wouldn’t get concerned because most of the spaces will be filled in by spring. If the live plants cover 60 percent or more of the stand, then the addition of some more legumes such as clover will quickly fill in the void areas. If there is over 40 percent bare ground, then additional seed is normally needed.

Broadcasting some seed during the dormant period on these thin areas will increase the chances of better stands and perhaps some more control of spontaneous weeds the next spring. Clovers are pretty easy – just make sure they are inoculated appropriately with the correct rhizobium for the species. Smooth, small-seeded grasses usually do best for overseeding. I don’t recommend doing an entire replanting at this time, but I’d rather risk a little seed to fill in some gaps than wrestle with feisty weeds. Timothy, perennial ryegrass, Italian ryegrass, redtop and bluegrass are probably good choices for such purpose.

Frost seeding is a good option for getting seed on the ground in preparation for spring. Here’s more from On Pasture.

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

May the grass grow deep roots under your feet and your soil be rich. Merry Christmas!

Keep on grazing!

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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