When to start grazing: Don’t rush it!

– Chris Penrose, Extension Educator, Ag and Natural Resources, Morgan County (originally published in the Ohio Farmer online)

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 and some years it does not. The best I have been able to do over the years is to do a rapid grazing of paddocks that are starting to grow that were not grazed close last fall or during the winter. I would then hope that by the time I went through the paddocks, the spring flush of growth was well underway.

Stockpiled fescue can be an excellent place to accomplish early turnout, and begin calving.

If the winter continues into spring like the way it began, I suggest we don’t rush things as we have a couple issues that could be going on. First, growth may be slow this spring, and second, many pastures have sustained abnormal damage this winter from the wet conditions.

As mentioned, if you have fields that were not grazed in the late fall or 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, horsenettle, cocklebur, and ragweed in our fields last year? A likely contributor could be the fields were grazed too close and too soon in the spring. I have had success reducing weed issues – ragweed in particular – by skipping the first rotation or two in fields that had notable damage from feeding hay over the winter.

If you do plan on doing early grazing when growth starts with the hope that by the time that is done the spring “flush of growth” will have started, don’t keep them in paddocks too long. The fast rotation will reduce the chances that the cows will graze too close, and if the ground is wet, pugging will be minimized. Also skip paddocks at least once where you fed hay this winter to allow them to recover and reduce the amount of summer weeds you will have.

If you have damage to paddocks, there are a several options: do nothing, frost seed, or smooth up and re-seed. If damage is not too bad, you can simply do nothing. Production may be limited for the year and you may need to monitor weed issues. If damage is not too bad and some re-seeding may be appropriate, frost seeding may still be an option.

If you need to smooth up ground and re-seed, determine if you want to plant annual or perennial plants, I generally lean towards perennials. Many situations, a mix of grass and legumes works well. If it is in a field that will have abuse in future years, a persistent grass like endophyte fescue or a novel endophyte fescue will provide a denser more persistent sod.

The bottom line is the less we have to feed hay in fields, the less damage we will potentially have. In the perfect world, we would be able to stockpile enough forage and even plant some crops like turnips, oats and cereal rye to meet most of the feed requirements for the winter. When we have to feed hay, a heavy use pad is an excellent option.

So much of this is an art based on science. I remember my teacher and friend Lorin Sanford say “It is the eye of the master that fattens the cow”. There are a lot of variables in each producer’s operation. 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. Finally, now is a good time to evaluate ways to reduce the need for stored feed next winter.