Is it Time to Start Grazing?

Chris Penrose, OSU Extension Educator ANR, Morgan County

For the spring we are having, and each producer’s situation, this is a difficult question. However, for most of us, the answer is yes! The recent warm weather has allowed the pasture and hay fields to really start growing at a fast clip.

There are several different thoughts on when to start grazing and I admittedly take a very aggressive approach to start grazing in the spring. I will even confess that it probably started thirty years ago when I was running out of hay. I start grazing as soon as I can. I use two approaches to early grazing. The first one is to use a “stockpiled” hay field (I made two cuttings of hay last summer, then let the field grow from August to March) and put my animals in the field on March 3rd. March 2nd was the last day I planned on feeding them hay, but that was not the case this year. My second approach is to then go through a fast rotation of paddocks and hay fields after I am finished with the stockpiled field with the hope that when I am through them the first time, the weather will have warmed up enough for the “spring flush” of forage growth to be occurring. This year, mother nature did not cooperate and I had to start feeding hay again. I even fed hay last Friday (April 27th), the latest I have fed hay in over thirty years.

Around my area, the pastures are finally starting to grow and I now have enough forages growing in my pastures that I do not need the hayfields to graze any more. In addition, if you graze hay fields too long, the yields will be greatly reduced for first cutting. However, if you can remove livestock prior to stem elongation, yields will typically not be reduced too much. There are always exceptions. Probably fifteen years ago, I moved the animals off the hayfields around April 24th and we had very little rain for the next month and yields suffered. However, most years, this works. In addition, it sets the growth back a little and the hay is less mature by the time I get to mowing it in early June. Another advantage to early grazing is that it sets the grasses back a little and the emerging clovers have less competition as they get established. There are a couple cautions. First, the early forages will be low in magnesium, since most of the growth is grass, so make sure you have mineral with adequate magnesium available. Next, if you use hay fields and that are wet, be cautious of potential “pugging” or damaging the fields from hoof action from your livestock, although this is less of a concern for sheep.

I have heard over the years that some like to wait until the grass has “strength”, because the early growth doesn’t have any nutrients. There is actually some truth in that as most of the early growth has a high moisture content. However, the quality of the initial growth will probably be the highest of the year.

Another option some have done with success over the years is to “set stock” animals in the pastures or “let them have the run of the fields” until the spring flush of growth begins. Then they close off fields to let grow for later grazing or hay, and they begin the rotation.

One final thought. If you have a paddock or two that hay was fed on and had areas of exposed soil, depending how severe, you may want to do some reseeding. If it is not in too bad of shape, consider skipping the paddock(s) a rotation or two to let it recover. When I have done that, I have noticed much fewer weeds later in the summer.

So is it time to start grazing? For most of us, the answer is yes. However, it depends on your location, needs, stage of growth and condition of your pastures. We don’t always follow the “rules” early in the season, but if we do not abuse our fields, they can be forgiving this time of the year.