November 16, 2023
The decision of when to turn cattle out to pasture in the spring is one that’s not taken lightly. Careful observation of plant life in the pasture is the key to longevity and a healthy grazing season. How pastures are managed in the fall will impact both their health and production through the winter and into spring.
Some in the region have already experienced the first snow of the season. Others are just getting into cool and frosty nights. As temperatures drop, most plants will be building up reserves before becoming dormant for the winter.
Throughout the winter, South Dakota State University Extension says management should be about balancing plant and animal needs. The nutritional needs of the livestock must be met, while plant and forage health should be carefully considered.
Just like in the regular season, “take half” can be considered an appropriate rule for winter grazing. A main concern in the cold season is to leave sufficient cover on the ground to capture snow and protect the soil from exposure. The soil surface should stay covered to protect it from late-winter or early-spring rains.
Turnout dates differ based on the region and weather. Many in the Northern Plains find pastures ready between May and June. Provided winter grazing kept pastures in good condition, the type of forage found in pastures can be the first indicator of when to turn out livestock.
Native grass species such as western wheatgrass, and big and little bluestem take longer to break out of winter dormancy. Pastures that are mostly native should not be grazed until late spring. However, if a mostly native pasture has been invaded with grasses, such as Kentucky bluegrass, smooth brome or crested wheatgrass, the pasture should be ready in early spring.
No matter the region, drought conditions can heavily impact the usual turnout date. If adequate moisture is not received in the spring, a later turnout can be expected. Not allowing enough time for grasses to recover in the spring can lead to reduced production.
Rains or moisture in April, May and June play the largest role in determining spring forage growth. A dry winter mixed with drought in these months can see a delay in normal production. In this case, producers should plan to delay grazing until forage is adequate.
Drought conditions or not, proper grazing management greatly influences forage production, and how much recovery time is needed. If enough residual plant material is left at the end of the fall grazing season, pastures may only need a few months to recover.
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