By Chris Penrose
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, but 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, ones 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 would be well underway.
Don’t graze too soon
If the winter continues into spring, I suggest not rushing things, as there may be a couple of issues. First, growth may be slow this spring. 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 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 that 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 animals in paddocks too long. A fast rotation will reduce the chances that 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 those paddocks to recover, and to reduce the amount of summer weeds you will have.
How to deal with damaged paddocks
If you have damage to paddocks, there are a several options: do nothing, frost-seed, or smooth up and reseed. 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 reseeding may be appropriate, frost seeding may still be an option.
If you need to smooth up ground and reseed, determine if you want to plant annual or perennial plants. I generally lean towards perennials. In many situations, a mix of grass and legumes works well. If the field 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 a 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 saying, “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. Resist the temptation, though — if hay is running short — to put cattle out on fields 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 reseeded 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.
Penrose is the Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension educator for Morgan County and a member of the OSU Extension Beef Team. The Beef Team publishes the weekly Ohio Beef Cattle letter, available at beef.osu.edu.