When to Start Grazing: Don’t Rush It!

– Chris Penrose, Extension Educator, Ag and Natural Resources, Morgan County

Originally posted on the BEEF Newsletter


One goal I have had with livestock grazing over the years is to start as soon as I can. I put spring calving cows on stockpiled grass in early March to calve with the hope of not having to feed any more hay. Many years this works but not this year, grass is just starting to grow. The stockpile is about gone and I have started feeding them some more hay but hope to move the group with the fall calving cows this weekend. I then plan on starting a fast rotation around many of the paddocks and hay fields which is actually later than many years.

I suggest we don’t rush things this year as we have a couple issues going on. First, as I mentioned, growth is slow this spring, and second, many pastures have sustained abnormal damage this winter from the wet conditions. If you have fields that were not grazed over the winter and are in good shape, you may be able to do a fast rotation through them when growth allows it. However, if fields are not in good shape and growth is just starting, waiting is a better option. Grass starts growing from the roots and needs enough leaf surface to start putting energy back into the roots and if it is grazed off before this can happen, it will weaken or kill the plant. In addition, if the field does not get enough time to recover and grow desirable grass and legumes, summer annual weeds are likely to germinate and grow in the next couple months. How many of us had weeds like foxtail and ragweed in our fields last year? A likely contributor could be the fields were grazed too soon in the spring.

I noted earlier that I plan doing a fast rotation next week with the hope that by the time that is done the spring “flush of growth” will have started. In addition, the fast rotation will reduce the chances that the cows will graze too close, and if the ground is wet, pugging will be minimized. There are also two paddocks where I fed hay this winter that I will skip at least twice through the rotation to allow them to recover and reduce the amount of summer weeds I will have.

So much of this is an art based on science. Everyone’s situation is a little different, but resist the temptation if hay is running short to put cattle out on fields that are just starting to grow that have been under any stress from close grazing or winter damage. It will allow for less hay fed in the long run and a more productive field this summer. If areas need to be re-seeded from damage, they will also need additional time to recover and grow as well.

EDITOR’s NOTE: Next week in this publication we’ll take a closer look at managing and repairing the pasture damage that’s occurred over the past year, as well as more early season management considerations.

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