– David Hartman, PA Extension Educator, Livestock
Grazing cattle during periods of wet weather can damage pasture stands and soil structure. Although some damage is to be expected, there are management practices that can help to avoid or at least reduce some of the potential for damage.
Having a sacrifice area can help prevent damage to permanent pastures, especially if the wet weather conditions become very prolonged. Cattle can be moved to the sacrifice area and fed stored feeds until pasture soil returns to an acceptable condition. As should be done with winter sacrifice areas, the area should eventually be repaired with tillage if necessary and then reseeded to either an annual or perennial mixture, depending on your goals.
Moving cattle more frequently during wet weather can help avoid excessive damage. Managers differ on how to best handle this. Some prefer grouping cattle into a high stocking density to contain damage to a small area, while others prefer to allow cattle to spread out into a lower stocking density. Regardless of management decision, moving cattle more frequently than usual helps to avoid or reduce the concentration of damage.
Understanding the soils on your farm is important from many perspectives. Planning for what to do in case of severely wet weather might include moving cattle to a well-drained paddock if that is possible.
Using no-till establishment whenever possible has many potential benefits. When establishing pasture, especially when planting a temporary pasture of annual plant species, cattle traffic during wet weather will be much less damaging on land that has been planted no-till versus with tillage.
Maintaining a heavy sod will increase pasture density which in turn increases our grazing days and forage yields. From the perspective of severe wet weather, a heavy sod will support cattle better and will lessen soil damage versus thin or depleted pasture swards. Keeping the stands thick involves overseeding if necessary, soil testing and maintaining adequate fertility, and avoiding overgrazing.
Species selection could play a role in how resilient a pasture is during severely wet weather. Although we need to make species selections based on other important criteria, having pastures with tall fescue or reed canarygrass could be advantageous, as these species are known to be able to tolerate more damage during wet weather.
Finally, good grazing management should always include leaving a considerable amount of residual forage when moving cattle to the next paddock. Overgrazed pastures not only recover more slowly from grazing in droughty conditions, they also sustain more damage from grazing in wet conditions.