– Chris Penrose, OSU Extension Educator, Morgan County
When we think of extending the grazing season, we usually think of how long we can go into the fall or winter without feeding stored feed. Another option often overlooked is how soon we can stop feeding as spring approaches.
There are several options to accomplish this. The first is by the use of wheat, barley of cereal rye planted back in late summer or early fall. If grazing is your primary option for the crop, cereal rye may be the best bet. This crop can be lightly grazed in December, then grazed again in March. This is probably the small grain that will start growing first in late winter/early spring. When young, it is high quality and provides feed in March; however, if rye is not stocked adequately as temperatures warm up, it can quickly get out of control and lose quality and palatability. If you plant a small grain crop for winter or early spring grazing, I recommend no-till to provide firmer ground when grazing. Livestock, especially cattle can make a mess if the ground gets too wet. Sheep and goats are a good option when the ground is wet and light stocking or fast rotation can reduce mud problems with the early grazing.
Over the years, there has been a lot of discussion on how early we can turn livestock out on pasture and often it depends if you are looking from the forage or livestock perspective (or if you are out of hay). If you have a healthy, productive pasture, you can turn out livestock as soon as the grass starts to green up (in Southeast Ohio, it is usually around the first day of spring). If you use rotational grazing, you can use a fast rotation or open up all the paddocks until the grass really takes off in early April, then start rotational grazing.
A couple other ideas that can work include stockpiling and grazing hay fields. Each year, you can stockpile a field (set it aside to grow from the end of summer through the fall). Tall fescue is the best species to stockpile. Let it set until calving season starts in early March. If the cows are in good condition, the only feed they will get is the stockpiled fescue and a good salt/mineral mix. There are four advantages to this. First, there will be a clean, thick sod to calve on. Second, according to University of Missouri research, the endophyte levels start dropping in fescue after freezing temperatures, and by the end of January, are low enough that they will not cause problems. Third, if you are trying to introduce new species into a predominately fescue sod, grazing down in March (or anytime in the winter) and even exposing the soil will make it ideal for frost seeding and allowing other grasses and clovers to germinate Finally, it is nice not to have to feed any more hay.
Early grazing hay fields may be an option. It seems no matter how hard we try, many years we just can’t get hay made until mid to late June (some are having success wrapping high moisture bales in May). If we have hay fields that were not grazed last fall, the option of turning them out in early March has worked. Try to estimate how much forage is available, the needs of the animals, minus estimated waste, to figure how many days are available. Then turn out the animals in March and try to have the animals finish the hay fields when the pastures start growing. Many years this works. Last year I had to feed hay for five days in early April as the cattle got ahead of the pasture, but in many years, you could finish feeding hay in early March.
Another advantage to early grazing hay fields, is if you can’t get hay made until mid to late June, early grazing will set back the hay a little and you will have a higher quality first cutting. Finish early grazing of hay fields in mid to late April, prior to stem elongation, and yield loss on the hay fields will be minimal. Keep in mind when early grazing, especially with cattle, to keep an eye on wet fields for pugging or mudding up. Finally, don’t forget to have a good mineral program to reduce chances of grass tetany and other mineral deficiencies that occur in late stockpiled forages or when grazing young grass pastures.