Livestock producers can extend the grazing season with planning and careful management by using a mix of cool and warm season grasses along with controlled grazing. With this article we're focusing on cattle but since sheep and horses will graze pastures "down to the dirt," destroying the growth point of the plants in the process, controlled grazing can be important for them as well. The basic principles can be applied to all.
Virginia Tech associate professor and forage and livestock specialist Chris Teutsch who works at the Southern Piedmont Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Blackstone, Va., notes extended grazing can be a big money saver for beef producers.
"One of the biggest components of beef cow/calf budgets is feed," Teutsch says. "Anytime we can reduce the amount of concentrate feed in the diet of beef cattle, or reduce the amount of hay, which is very expensive to make, we are going to save money. The best way to do that is by extending grazing."
Generally, the basic idea is to look for the right mix of forages for you area. A blend of cool and warm season grasses, usually in different paddocks, and a practice of limiting the grazing time on the pasture so the grass can refresh itself is key.
We commonly think about extending grazing during the winter months," Teutsch says, "but it can be useful in the summer, as well, to fill in that summer slump ranchers commonly get in cool-season grasses.
"Then we can stockpile some of our cool-season grasses like tall fescue to provide winter grazing," he adds. "There are other alternatives for extending winter grazing, too. If you are in a crop area you can graze crop residues like corn stalks for a very minimal cost."
For cool-season grasses Teutsch looks for species that have optimal growth at cooler temperatures (around 70 degrees Fahrenheit), are more digestible and have a longer growing season. For warm season grasses, he looks for optimal growth at higher temperatures (around 90 degrees Fahrenheit), these species tend to be less digestible, but are more drought tolerant and efficient at using water.
Using the Virginia Cooperative Extension publication Controlled Grazing of Virginia's Pastures by Extension agronomists Harlan White and Dale Wolf as a guide (Publication 418-012) Teutsch looks at how various forages can fit together in a best management menu.
Cool season grasses like Kentucky bluegrass, orchardgrass and tall fescue have peak growing seasons around May and September with dips in growth between, around July. Legumes with comparable growing seasons are ladino clover, red clover and alfalfa.
He counts ryegrass and small grains as cool-season annual grasses with peaks around the middle of March and between October and November.
These can be filled in during the summer with warm season grasses like bermudagrass, switchgrass and caucasian bluestem, as well as annual grasses such as sorghum-sudan, pearl millet and crabgrass. The annual grasses generally have peak growing times somewhere between May and July or August.
Stockpiling cool-season grasses in the fall allows forage growth to accumulate and offers an option for seasonal distribution. These are used to fill in between about November through the end of February.
Teutsch considers tall fescue as one of the best adapted cool-season grass and he lists its following positive traits this way:
• Tall fescue is drought tolerant.|
• It forms tough sod.
• It tolerates abuse.
• It is persistent.
• Tall fescue also stockpiles well.
On the negative side of the register tall fescue is less palatable.
For more information the Extension publication Controlled Grazing of Virginia's Pastures is available on the Internet.
Teutsch has notes from his presentation, Shrinking Feed Costs With Extended Grazing Systems, available for download in pdf form.