By Chris Penrose, Ohio State University Extension Educator, Agriculture & Natural Resources, Morgan County
Spring is just around the corner and it will soon be time to graze our livestock. Think it is too soon? I might be cheating, but I will start grazing my spring calving cattle on stockpiled fescue in a couple weeks and if things go right, I will be done feeding hay to them. In reality, I plan on officially grazing new growth in late March (on some warmer springs, I have started around March 21). After teaching pasture and grazing programs for over 30 years and trying to “practice what I preach,” here is what I try to do.
First, we need to start off with healthy pastures, ones that can take an early grazing without hurting re-growth too much. Next, I try to estimate when the spring “flush” of new rapid growth will start. In most years, it is around April 10 in Southeast Ohio. Then I try to figure how long it will take to do a fast rotation of my paddocks and hay fields that I can “early graze.” On my farm and through experience, this is about 14 days. So if I start grazing and rotating late March and the spring “flush” of growth starts around April 10, I should be in good shape. Maybe you can figure out how long it would take you to do a fast rotation before you expect the “flush” of new growth in your area.
Let me explain this further. If I can slow down growth a little bit by early grazing, maybe we can spread out the “flush” of spring growth. Since about 70% of our forage production is in the spring, it would be nice if we could lengthen or more evenly spread out the production of our pastures. So, I may graze early at the expense of some of my paddocks, but they are fairly healthy. I also do a couple early light grazings of a few of my hay fields (making sure the cattle do not “pug” up the fields in wet weather). I try to stop grazing hay fields before stem elongation and make hay from them a little later as the grazing will set the maturity and yields back a little. This will give my regular paddocks a longer chance to rest and recover, and then they can be grazed more frequently during the fast growth when the hay fields are not grazed. Depending on pasture and hay needs, I can graze or make hay on one or several of the hay fields later in the summer.
As we get later in the summer and if a paddock or two needs attention, we can fertilize or add manure to the paddocks and give them extra rest.
If our pastures are not in the best of shape, I would consider letting the forages grow for a while before grazing, which will also reduce weed pressure. The initial growth will be from root reserves and as the grass and legumes grow, the plants will start putting some energy into the roots and into seed production. Later in the spring, when seed heads have been produced, I encourage a clipping of the pastures to allow the plants, especially grass to focus primarily on leaf production and building root reserves.
Fertilizing is an option and I recommend that you have an adequate pH to best utilize the nutrients (for most pastures a 5.5-7.0 pH is ideal). Avoid too much nitrogen as this may make the pastures grow faster, but in the spring, it can also weaken the root reserves since the plant is moving nutrients up to make seed heads.
Mother Nature does not always cooperate. Some years when it is unusually cool and I started to graze in late March, but grass did not grow as fast, I had to go back to feeding hay for a week, but it finally warms up and everything was fine. A lot of grazers like to see how long they can go until they feed hay in the winter, but you can save feeding hay on the other end…this end.
Every year, I seem to have a paddock that takes an extra beating in the winter. It is usually one that needed extra fertility, and I fed a lot of hay in that field and got trampled up a little too much. This is a perfect candidate to frost seed if there is still time. In this field, I may skip a rotation or two to let it re-cover and establish the frost seeding. If grass gets too far ahead of the new clover, I may graze the field for a very short time to set the grass back a little and give the clover more sunlight to get established. I will lose some clover from trampling, but the remaining clover will be better able to compete with the established grass.
Don’t forget to plan, every year is different. Some years we may have an early warm spring which indicates a probable dry summer. Then some years we have a cold slow spring and a wet summer. What will this year bring? I do not know, but a key to successful grazing is trying to predict what is down the road so we can be prepared for it. I recall in 2012, I tried to get up as much extra hay as I could in case the summer turned dry and it did. I had plenty of hay but not water, so I had two springs re-worked so we would have more water. Whatever the growing season brings, hopefully we can be as ready as possible.