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10 steps to remember before turning cattle out this spring

Cattle graze near fence line
GOING GREEN: Making baleage or grazing additional cattle are good ideas, if you have the money and don’t mind grazing stockers and replacements.
Managing the spring flush of growth is key to a successful grazing plan.

The weather is starting to warm up and the grass is getting greener. That means spring grazing season in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast is almost here.

There are many things producers need to think about before they turn out their cattle to enjoy the early fruits of spring, especially when it comes to preserving good-quality forage.

Brett Chedzoy, a Cornell Extension agent and silvopasture expert based in Watkins Glen, N.Y., says producers should do as much as possible to protect the soil during soft ground conditions that often occur early in the season.

“Use sacrifice areas, if needed, or speed up the rotation,” Chedzoy says. “Don’t overgraze as the pastures are getting started and rotate multiple times a day if needed.”

Dave Hartman, a livestock Extension educator with Penn State, says managing the spring flush of growth is key to a successful grazing plan.

Here are some things he suggests:

1. Make hay or baleage. Stored forages will be needed next winter. But Hartman says to avoid buying hay equipment just to harvest a small amount of excess forage. Instead, see if there is anyone who could bale the hay on a custom basis.

If there are no custom operators where you are at, baling the excess may not be a realistic option. 

2. Graze additional cattle. Grazing stockers or replacements can be used to temporarily increase the stocking rate to utilize excess forage. Those cattle would be removed in early summer to drastically reduce the stocking rate.

Obviously, this requires being in an additional enterprise area that involves more time, capital, marketing and possibly wintering considerations. Consider these factors: Do you want to be in an additional enterprise? Do you have the capital to buy the cattle or are there options for grazing cattle for other people?

This may be a realistic option for some farmers but could be a disaster for others. 

3. Try mob-grazing. Ultra-high stock density, or mob grazing, involves grouping cattle onto very small land areas with frequent moves to new paddocks. Sometimes the occupation period is measured in hours, with several moves per day.

This involves more labor than most other grazing management systems.

As the season progresses, forage grazed for the first time will be tall and coarse. Some forage will be trampled and some forage will be grazed. The trampling can help deal with excess spring growth by returning it to, and feeding, the soil.

Mob grazing has the additional advantage of stockpiling some forage that can be rationed out through the summer slump. 

4. Mow and rot. If you don’t own hay equipment, don’t have neighbors who bale hay and can’t afford to buy some stocker cattle to eat excess forage, this could be the best option.

Hartman says to take out a few paddocks before they get too coarse, and rank and mow them. This will keep the pasture vegetative and growing. If the excess forage is mowed too late it can have a tie-up effect on soil nitrogen, which will negatively impact regrowth. 

Mow earlier, if possible, while the forage is still green. 

5. Turn out cattle early on a rotational basis. Begin the rotation early and make sure there is enough pasture to allow the livestock to fully access their dry-matter needs. Or, provide supplemental forage as the rotation starts. 

Starting a grazing rotation late, he says, makes the spring flush problem much worse. 

6. Try rapid rotation. Running the first several rotations on a rapid or flash grazing model could help reduce the spring flush problem. The idea is to graze plants as they try to push a seed head, consequently keeping the plant in a vegetative state. 

7. Plant warm-season annuals. Planting warm-season annuals can not only fill-in the summer slump, it could reduce acreage for spring grazing to a level compatible with the stocking rate. 

As with baling, there are equipment expenses, and grazing managers shouldn’t be tempted to buy equipment just for this purpose. But if you have large acreage, already own equipment for row crops or have a neighbor who has a no-till drill, this could be an option. 

Also, if you have paddocks that need renovation, the warm-season annual could be used in the renovation process. 

8. Plant warm-season perennials. As with warm-season annuals, warm-season perennials can be used to not only bridge the summer slump, but also to reduce acreage for spring grazing to a level more compatible with the stocking rate. 

Keep in mind that these species take a few years to become fully established. But if you are patient, a properly managed paddock of warm-season perennials could provide years of good summer grazing and can help reduce your spring flush problem. 

9. Don’t apply nitrogen this spring. If there is a problem with spring flush in our cool-season pastures, why should we apply nitrogen in early spring and make the problem worse? Hartman says a better strategy is to skip the spring application and instead apply nitrogen a little later, near the end of the spring flush, and stockpile some forage to get through the summer slump.  

10. Establish some legumes. Hartman says most farms that use cool-season forages for grazing are lacking in legumes. 

In comparison to grass, legume growth peaks a little lower in spring and peaks a little higher in summer. Hartman says this can have the effect of reducing the spring flush and helping to bridge the summer slump. 

Research done at the University of Missouri has shown that pastures with a strong component of red clover yielded about the same as a straight tall fescue stand fertilized with 120 pounds of nitrogen per acre. Furthermore, the grass/red clover pastures had more yield and uniform growth distribution throughout the summer. 

In the straight grass pastures, most of the annual growth occurred by July. 

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