Change Grazing Strategies to Handle Early Forage Flush

Fodder for Thought

Higher stock density can manage big growth and there are many ways of accomplishing it.

Published on: April 4, 2012

This winter was one of the mildest on record and this spring seems to be starting off in similar fashion with unseasonably warm temperatures. Here in Kentucky we are nearly two to three weeks ahead of schedule in our growing season.

This earlier growing season has led cool-season forage grasses and small grains to reach optimum feed quality at a more rapid rate. Ray Smith, extension forage specialist at University of Kentucky, said this is the earliest forages have matured in the seven years he’s been at the university.

This situation creates a need for beef producers to implement a slightly different grazing management strategy than they may usually consider. To take advantage of this earlier grazing opportunity, producers will need to think outside the box. This is where a little knowledge about plant growth cycles and grazing management can come in handy.

Cool-season grasses produce about 60% of their total dry matter production by early July. If you’re like many cattle producers, you carry a light stocking rate that is matched to your summer pasture production. These lighter stocking rates create a decline in forage utilization during the early spring as cattle are unable to keep up with the rapid flush of grass growth.

In addition, the earlier maturation of forages leads to reduced palatability. This decline in palatability is attributed to the plant’s shift to a reproductive physiological state.

Standard grazing management would say that faster rotations and possible mowing of pastures is the answer. But in reality this only leads to selective grazing and added fuel costs. Instead, work with your forage’s growth cycle.

Options for producers include increasing stocking density to utilize the increase forage production and adjusting the number and/or size of paddocks in your rotation.

First off, let’s clear up the difference between stocking density and stocking rate. Many times producers confuse these terms.

  • Stocking density is defined as the number of animal units (AU) grazed per unit of land during a short time period -- basically at any given moment.
  • Stocking rate is defined as the number of AU grazed per unit of land over a long period of time. It is essentially the carrying capacity of the land.

It is possible to greatly vary your stocking density but not stocking rate. This can be done by dividing paddocks up into smaller sections. This will require a faster rotation schedule but will greatly increase forage utilization allowing beef producers to take full advantage of lush spring grass growth.

Stocking density can also be increased by increasing stocking rate for a time. This can be done by acquiring more cattle to increase stocking rate, leasing some pasture to a neighboring beef producer, or custom grazing cattle for others. It is important that stocking rates should be adjusted to the peak of plant growth cycle and will require considerable reductions into summer as cool-season forage production decreases.

The option of adjusting the number of paddocks in your rotations, can be useful if you do not have enough cattle to utilize all of the available forage or are unable to increase stocking rates. By reducing the number of paddocks in your rotation it will be easier for you to fully utilize the forage available. The dropped paddocks can then be baled for hay or mowed, depending on your needs. This excess forage may come in handy if circumstances arise that greatly decrease forage availability, such as drought.

These are just a few of the vast array of possibilities when it comes to grazing management strategies. The important thing is for beef producers to challenge their conventional wisdom about grazing management and think outside the box. Options are available. You just have to be willing to seek out the information.

For more ideas on grazing strategies consult with your state’s forage extension specialist or attend a grazing school. I also recommend checking out Jim Gerrish’s book, Management Intensive Grazing.

In the end, like Benjamin Franklin said, "An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest."