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Give grazing good start

Spring and the accompanying pasture growth soon will be upon us. At a recent grazing school, Bob Hendershot, Natural Resources Conservation Service state grazing and grassland specialist, said a grazing program costs about three times less than any feeding program that uses harvested and stored feed. That being so, it behooves livestock owners to think about how they might get more out of their pastures and grazing programs. One area to think about is how the beginning of the grazing season will be managed. As the old saying goes, “Well begun is half done.”

Key Points

• Tender spring grass is a favorite food for livestock.

• Make sure plants are not damaged by overeating or hoof traffic.

• Stocking density will determine if some pasture clipping is necessary.

Factors to consider include pasture growth rate, sod condition, type of livestock and number of pasture paddocks. At the onset, let me make clear that improving pasture use and management is dependent upon pasture divisions to a large extent. The more capability you have to subdivide pastures and create more paddocks, the more possibilities there are to better use pasture growth.

Critters love new grass

Livestock love new grass growth — it is preferred to any hay. The challenge at the very beginning of the pasture growth season is to protect the newly growing plants from being overgrazed and the sod base from getting cut up by animal hooves. If the sod is very wet and the soil is soft, it must be protected from hoof action. Churning up the sod base in the early spring to get some early spring grazing can end up reducing the yearly total production.

Horses are probably the worst, because of their need to run, and they are followed by cattle, whose sheer weight — especially when grouped together — can quickly damage a sod base. Sheep and goats make the least impact due to their lower body weight, but again, stocking density plays a role. The point is, keeping livestock confined to a sacrifice area or heavy-use feeding pad during some of those soggy early spring days can pay dividends later in the growing season.

Livestock will graze newly emerging and young grass plants close to soil level if permitted, and when the plant starts to regrow, they will graze it down again. This is a formula for reducing the vigor and total productivity of the pasture. We have to return once again to basic grazing management principles regarding the ending grazing height and rest period.

The tendency in early spring before grass growth really explodes is to let livestock graze the grass plants too low because there still is not much tonnage being produced. Keep in mind that orchardgrass should not be grazed lower than 3 inches in height, while bluegrass and endophyte-infected tall fescue can be grazed down to about 2 inches. Then, a rest period must be provided to allow that grass plant to recover and grow back to starting grazing height.

What that starting grazing height should be is another management decision. As spring progresses, grass growth will speed up, and if the standard 8- to 10-inch starting grazing height is waited for, then some paddocks will get too tall and mature. A couple of ways of handling the flush of growth are to lower the starting grazing heights, say to the 5- or 6-inch range, and/or to drop some paddocks out of the spring rotation.

Some graziers refer to their spring grazing management as “topping” the grass — that is, fast rotation through paddocks where livestock only take a couple of inches off the top of the rapidly growing plant. Remember, leaving more leaf residual is much preferred to taking off too much of the grass plant.

Drop some paddocks

If paddocks are dropped out of the spring rotation, it makes it easier to manage the spring flush of growth. Once grass begins to grow rapidly, the rest period to regrow to a 6- to 8-inch grazing height may be as quick as 12 to 18 days. If there are eight or 10 pasture paddocks, this is a one- to two-day rotation — maybe faster than some graziers want to manage.

Dropping some paddocks out of the rotation and working with four or five paddocks can extend grazing time in each paddock to the three- to four-day time frame. In the early spring, livestock probably should not be in any paddock more than three or four days anyway, since grass plants will begin to regrow within that time frame and should be protected from being grazed again.

Options for unused paddocks

The question will come up about what to do with the paddocks that are dropped out of the spring rotation. Options include taking a hay crop from them, simulating a grazing pass by keeping them clipped, and letting them grow.

The advantage of taking a hay crop is that it might be used later as a management tool, but the disadvantage is that some significant nutrient removal is associated with a hay crop.

Clipping is another expense, but it does allow nutrients to be recycled back into the paddock, and it will maintain the vegetative quality of the paddock.

Letting the paddocks grow and mature could be an option if, when they are worked back into the grazing rotation, they are grazed by a class of animal that has a lower nutrient need — for example dry ewes. If the stocking density is heavy enough, there would not be any need to clip the paddock after the grazing pass. If the stocking density is light enough to allow selective grazing, then it may be necessary to clip the paddock after this grazing pass.

The spring grazing season is quickly approaching, and a little forethought given to developing a good start to grazing will have an effect beyond the spring season. For more information about spring grazing management, contact your county’s Ohio State University Extension office.

Lewandowski is the Athens County Extension educator.

This article published in the April, 2010 edition of OHIO FARMER.

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