Pastures – To Clip or Not to Clip?

– Rory Lewandowski, OSU Extension Educator, Wayne County

As I write this newsletter, we are getting rains and temperatures that are helping pastures to produce a lot of dry matter growth. Along with that growth has come seed head production. Once that grass plant produces a seed head, it stops producing vegetative tillers and the quality of the plant declines as fiber percentage increases, while crude protein and energy percentage decreases. In the “Pasture for Profit” grazing schools, one of the pasture management principles is remove seed heads and strive to keep the plant in vegetative growth. Seed heads can be removed by grazing animals or avoided if grazing passes are timely. However, with the growth rates we experience in the spring, it would take some high stocking rates and densities to avoid seed heads or remove all the seed heads. Most, if not all, beef cattle owners are going to have to deal with seed heads in their pasture. The second option is to clip those seed heads off. This is a necessary pasture management chore isn’t it?

I’ve had several interesting discussions about clipping pastures recently. As a result, I’m “refining” my recommendations about pasture clipping, and adding some qualifications. While it is true that clipping seed heads will allow the plant to go back to vegetative growth and will result in higher quality forage, it is also true there is a cost associated with clipping pastures. The Ohio Custom Rate publication (2008) says bush hogging costs about $15/acre. To get a payback from that $15/acre the beef cattle producer must be able to utilize the benefits that clipping is producing. Here are some considerations:

* Do my cattle need the increased quality that clipping seed heads will produce? A vegetative plant is high in crude protein. A beef stocker may need this kind of quality. A first calf cow may need the higher quality forage. Does a mature cow in milk need vegetative quality pasture?

* Pastures clipped in May are likely to produce another set of seed heads. Will you be able to get another grazing pass in to utilize the quality before seed heads form again?

* Instead of clipping seed heads in all pasture paddocks, could some paddocks be dropped out of the early season rotation and used for hay production? If the paddocks that remained in the early season rotation could then be subdivided, in effect increasing the stocking density, the cattle would graze more evenly with less selection, and minimize the need for clipping.

* If economics dictated that pastures could only be clipped one time per year, when would be the best time to clip? Clipping in late July/early August would insure that re-growth is vegetative and would prepare paddocks for a stockpiling option.

* On the other hand, that $15/acre cost for clipping off seed heads might also be looked at as management that is necessary to open up the pasture canopy, let sunlight in and insure that lower growing white clover stays in the pasture mix.

* Clipping might be important in your management scheme to allow grass plants to continue vegetative growth and tillering to thicken the sod base and fill in bare areas, or simply as management to hasten re-cycling of plant nutrients in the pasture paddock. Some may even view clipping seed heads as giving an added benefit of reducing some weed pressure in pasture paddocks.

The point here is that the beef producer should know what they are trying to accomplish when pastures are clipped. Clipping should meet some management objective. I’d be glad to continue this discussion and hear your point of view.