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Trouble ahead: Spring growth is coming!Trouble ahead: Spring growth is coming!

That washy spring growth problem needs to be cured nine months early by saving some old grass to graze next spring.

R. P. 'Doc' Cooke

December 21, 2016

4 Min Read
The perfect diet for early spring is new grass growing in old grass from last season.

It may be dead of winter now, but we all know how soon green grass will be here.

Pretty grass in this time frame is often referred to as lush due to color and fast growth. But cattle health and performance is commonly worse than in January. I have written previously that pretty grass is often dangerous and deadly. Seldom is this more true than in the early spring. I have seen cattle wear themselves out picking short water logged grass while ignoring hay that they have eaten all winter.

The lush spring grass I am speaking of grows very fast and is 80-90% water. The energy content is always low and the protein content is actually near nonexistent: Instead, non-protein nitrogen (NPN) can be and often is extremely high. This is especially true if any form of nitrogen -- especially chemical nitrogen -- has been applied to the pasture in the past several weeks or months. Waking pastures up early with as little as 10 units of ammonium nitrate can make a bad situation worse.

Phosphorus and magnesium and calcium content of the grass is low. Potash (potassium) may be high, and makes matters worse as high potassium tends to block phosphorus, magnesium and calcium absorption. Sheeting manure is a good proof that everything is upset.

We aim for our cattle to be gaining weight, condition and vigor. If this is not happening we need to make some changes. Dry matter is the major key, much of which needs to be in the form of long-stem dry matter. This quickly brings us to the importance of planning back last June and July.

The healthiest, easiest, cheapest and most rewarding springs I have ever experienced were when my cattle were strip grazing in lush grass that was growing into old growth from last summer and fall. These cattle start improving in condition and making gains in performance six to eight weeks before cattle on short, washy forage.

Remember the right decision was actually made during the middle of last year’s growing season. If you fail to hold recovered, ungrazed pastures for spring grazing you will wish you had, especially if you are dealing with fast growing cool-season plants.

Let’s assume that we just got through identifying our error and it is mid-March and the cattle are loose as a bunch of geese and have stopped eating hay (oops!).

What are our options?

  • Tighten the cattle forage allotment and force hay consumption. Add salt, molasses (or sugar) combination to the hay. Feed hay in the morning. Add apple cider vinegar to the hay. New grass in the afternoon following the hay.

  • Add up to five pounds of cracked or ground or rolled grain per 1,000 pounds of cattle. And beware; the boss cattle will eat all the grain if you do not slow them down. Add lots of lime, up to 40% to slow them down.

  • Apple cider vinegar will neutralize the ammonia toxicity of NPN. You can feed it free choice in tubs. Consumption needs to be eight to 12 ounces per 1,000 pounds of cattle. DO NOT mix apple cider vinegar with lime.

  • Mow and windrow 8-12-inch lush growth and allow it to dry for 48 hours and then strip graze. You can spray the windrows with a dilute solution of vinegar and salt water to help preserve and increase dry matter consumption and utilization.

  • Chemically strip-burn lush grass and then strip graze. Again, vinegar-salt-water adjuvant solution with eight ounces of vegetable oil per 20 gallons of water is probably the safest. Salt {NaCl} is safe when applied at 50 pounds per acre in most areas with over 40 inches of moisture per year.

  • Ionophores may decrease gross consumption and scouring

What are the do-nots?

  • Don’t stop regularly checking and cattle supplementation in the early spring.

  • Don’t allow cattle to lose condition fast.

  • Don’t turn hungry cattle on lush grass or wet, lush grass.

  • Don’t graze grass that has been spread with manure or lagoon effluent.

  • Don’t feed byproducts such as distiller’s grains.

  • Don’t feed urea-containing supplements.

To summarize lush green grass management, the most important concept may be to remove our mining mentality and hold six weeks of last year’s warm-season growth for spring grazing. Nothing but good things result as we can usually stop hay feeding early, watch the cattle start gaining condition, and allow our other pastures to kick into gear.

I have always loved and enjoyed pretty days of sunshine as the world comes alive in the spring. With the old, ugly growth of last year to graze, life has just gotten better.

About the Author(s)

R. P. 'Doc' Cooke


R. P. "Doc" Cooke, DVM, is a mostly retired veterinarian from Sparta, Tennessee. Doc has been in the cattle business since the late 1970s and figures he's driven 800,000 miles, mostly at night, while practicing food animal medicine and surgery in five counties in the Upper Cumberland area of middle Tennessee. He says all those miles schooled him well in "man-made mistakes" and that his age and experiences have allowed him to be mentored by the area’s most fruitful and unfruitful "old timers." Doc believes these relationships provided him unfair advantages in thought and the opportunity to steal others’ ideas and tweak them to fit his operations. Today most of his veterinary work is telephone consultation with graziers in five or six states. He also writes and hosts ranching schools. He is a big believer in having fun while ranching but is serious about business and other producers’ questions. Doc’s operation, 499 Cattle Company, now has an annual stocking rate of about 500 pounds beef per acre of pasture and he grazes 12 months each year with no hay or farm equipment and less than two pounds of daily supplement. You can reach him by cell phone at (931) 256-0928 or at [email protected].

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