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When Seed Heads Pop, Pasture Quality Will Drop

When Seed Heads Pop, Pasture Quality Will Drop

MU Extension forage specialist shares early intensive grazing tips for cattle and sheep producers.

Grass management deserves a lot more attention this year. Forage is worth more.

"Think of the increased value of grazing forage," says Rob Kallenbach, University of Missouri Extension forage specialist. Cattle and sheep are worth a lot more. Land prices are higher. Corn prices have shot up. And, fuel to harvest hay keeps going up.

"That makes forage worth more than you might expect," Kallenbach says. "We don't value forage very highly in Missouri. Hay wasn't worth as much when corn was $2 a bushel. "We can no longer ignore the value and benefits of managed grazing. The pounds of gain are worth more."

Kallenbach's research shows that hay made in May will put on more pounds of gain than hay cut in the middle of June. Often the key to better hay is early grazing of the hay paddock before it is set aside to grow hay. That early grazing can nip the hidden seed head.

Well-managed spring grazing, creating high nutrient forages, can add another pound of gain per day per animal.

Need more incentive? "Just put current value of a pound of beef on that," Kallenbach says. "Gain is worth well over a dollar per pound per head per day. Management-intensive grazing has never been worth more."

Learn to park the mower

Kallenbach paints a scenario for livestock producers. In July, when you are driving round and round in the pasture, brush hogging seed heads and over mature forage, just think about what you are doing.

"If you are mowing pasture to regain control of quality, you messed up bad at the start of the grazing season," Kallenbach says.

Mowing to remove what is basically dead grass represents lost feed. But, it is also lost time. If seed heads were nipped, that time could be used to grow new quality grass. That wasted effort need not be. The way to control seed heads is to graze them off, before they even get to the boot stage.

"Early harvest, down to 2.5 inches, on the first fast graze will set the pasture up for easy management throughout the season," Kallenbach says. "Seed heads as they first start to develop are good feed. However, once heads emerge, they change the forage quality of the whole plant.

"Once a pasture gets this tall," Kallenbach puts his hand about waist high, "and all you see are seed heads, grass won't be worth much." That's when the mower must be used to restore forage quality potential.

To get that uniform, short, grazing height on the first pass is best done with rotational grazing with paddock sizes that force cattle or sheep to give a uniform clip to the grass. On that first round, it would be a quick zip.

If there is more forage than the herd or flock can handle, bring in extra livestock. Or, use the common practice of haying. At least that early cut hay will have high nutrition feeding value. Remember, quality hay will be worth more with the increasing cost of supplemental feed.

The early-season grazing takes the highest level of management. When seed heads are nipped once there will not be any new seed heads emerging this year. Then, any growth that gets too tall will retain higher feed value. Grazing rotations later in the season become easier to manage, without the seed heads.   


Read more timely information on forage and hay management in the May issue of Missouri Ruralist.

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