Pasture Management 101: Graze Early, Graze Often!

– Stan Smith, OSU Extension PA, Fairfield County

It’s been about 14 years since I first had the opportunity to listen to Daryl Clark, Noble County Ag Agent, discuss intensive grazing management in detail. We were in the Top Hat Restaurant in Junction City, and for more than an hour about 30 of us were packed in their meeting room and sat quietly enough that we were able hear every word Daryl quietly spoke. That one presentation probably had more impression on me than any other single Extension presentation I’ve ever listened to. For those of us in attendance it was a whole ‘new’ look at something that most of our ancestors had understood very well.

In all the years since, many of us – including Daryl – have continued to spread the word frequently enough about improving the productivity of this ‘crop’ called pasture that sometimes we begin to believe that everyone has heard it so many times their bored with it. Yet, it seems for several weeks, I’ve received at least two or three calls each week here in the County office wanting to know what to do to “improve my pasture’s productivity.” So, with that in mind, I offer this ‘Pasture Management 101’ refresher.

First, if you haven’t turned out yet, it’s getting late – move them out on the pasture as soon as possible! Despite the recent thunderstorms and this morning’s widespread rainfall, most Ohio soils will firm back up quickly enough to support livestock yet this week without doing any damage. And, with the precipitation we have received recently, combined with the warm temperatures, most grass plants are at least 3 to 4 inches tall by now.

If a highly productive, well managed pasture is your goal for 2001 – pasture that will optimize the number of $1+ pounds of calf you produce this summer – then you need to be on each paddock or pasture early and often over the next 6 weeks. As you plan your rotations, give some thought to where you can go and yet do the least damage to rain softened fields. Now that we’re receiving rainfall, go to the best drained or heaviest thatched fields now, and get back to your softer fields later as we dry out. When grazing soft fields, if you get the cattle on, and then get off quickly within a day or so, the fields will heal nicely before the next turn through them arrives in a couple weeks.

In a ‘managed’ grazing program, waiting until the plants reach a height of 6 inches or more to begin grazing will quickly allow the forage to get ahead of the consumption capacity of your animals. That means more seed heads by mid May, and thus, lower quality plus less total production. Anytime a plant pushes out a seed head, it stops it’s vegetative state of growth and that means the plant isn’t making cattle feed – just seeds. By delaying turnout any longer, it also makes it difficult to get the staggered regrowth needed to make the second rotation of the pastures or paddocks work efficiently.

If you’re in a situation where feed or forage is currently in short supply, or, you constantly find yourself in a labor crunch that causes first cutting hay to be made late, you might also consider topping off hay fields with a quick grazing turn through them. This not only provides additional high quality feed, but will delay seed head development of the first cutting while not reducing overall production.

For those who might not have yet experienced the long term benefits of a ‘managed’ grazing plan, the obvious question may be ‘why’ as we sit here in April facing more forage produced over the next six weeks than our livestock can consume in that time. The real benefits will come later in this pasturing season and in pasturing seasons to come. A managed grazing plan will increase both the quality and quantity of available summer pasture production. The forage producer who maintains the forage plant in a vegetative state will cause the plant to grow longer into the summer months. The dormancy of a plant that occurs after seed head production can simply be eliminated by clipping, however, temperature and/or low moisture factors will still be at work suppressing the growth. A vegetative plant will continue to produce summer foliage and roots that can reach deeper for moisture.

Other than grazing ‘early and often,’ what else will improve pasture productivity? Early summer fertilization is the first thing that comes to mind. Although early spring fertilization can significantly increase yield, most of us don’t have the numbers of livestock early in the year to effectively manage and utilize the excessive yields that result. Late May or early June application will help extend growth into the summer months at a time when growth typically slows. Forage plants which are vegetative at the time of application will be ‘jump-started’ to produce another ‘flush.’ If possible, this application should be just prior to a significant (1/4 inch plus) rainfall. Nitrogen application alone may increase growth, but may translocate phosphorus and potash from root stores. Develop a fertility management program based on current soil tests which gives balanced nutrition to the plants.

Another management tool that I alluded to earlier is the maintenance of root development. A vegetative plant needs to have rest periods to replenish root stores to continue to make significant growth. A short (2-4 day) grazing period, followed by significant rest to restore root reserves (10-20 days in the spring and 30 days during summer) accomplishes this. The above ground plant growth will be a reflection of the below ground growth. Healthy, abundant roots will result in greater top growth to be grazed – especially during times of dry weather!.

Leaving some forage stubble in each pasture as you move the livestock on to the next may reduce forage harvest in the short run, but will increase it over the long haul. By leaving a greater stubble after grazing, the soil surface will be shaded to allow less evaporation from hot weather. At the same time, longer stubble will retain more leaf surface. Therefore, initial regrowth can be from energy produced by photosynthesis in these leaves rather than root reserves. A large part of maintaining more stubble is to lengthen rest periods between grazings. Greater length of growth will help keep animals from grazing as closely so stubble length can be maintained.

Another way to justify leaving more stubble early in the grazing season is to consider it a ‘stockpile’ for the summer slump. Stockpiling for the dryer months is best accomplished by continuing to rotate but leaving more residual plant after each pass. This is especially good when pasturing young cattle since nutritional quality – including crude protein content – is highest in the mid to upper portion of the grass plant. Also, as you plan for ‘summer stockpiling’, remember that bluegrass will maintain it’s ‘summer’ quality longer than most of our grasses.

Pasture clipping to keep plants from seedhead production will maintain forage in a vegetative state, and keep weeds from reproducing, also. Like with most life forms, reproduction is the goal of the individual plant. Once it makes a seed head, it’s goal in life is accomplished and it doesn’t make any more leaf. Don’t let it reproduce, and it will keep making leaves. And remember, clipping after seed formation may be mostly cosmetic – it looks better but, the plant has already ended it’s vegetative state.

And finally, if early pasture growth is too much for your livestock to keep up with, make hay or clip it and let it lay. Letting it lay may seem like a short term waste, but it will yield long term benefits – especially in a dry July and August – by keeping the plants vegetative.

Research suggests that the amount of pasture forage actually consumed over a growing season with continuous stocking is only about 35% of what is produced. A rotationally managed pasture system, with 1-3 day rotation intervals, typically has over 70% of the growth consumed. This difference results primarily from the more effective use and management of the spring flush. For optimum ‘yields’ of your ‘crop’ called ‘pasture’ that will result in more pounds of calf marketed, graze early – and graze often!