Forced to graze early? Some options for stemming the losses

For every day too early you graze in the spring, 
count on losing three days of grazing in the fall

With previous flooding, drought and now a late spring, many producers will be faced with the question of what to do with pastures weakened by flooding and overgrazing.

No matter how you look at it, you may be forced to sacrifice the health of some of your pastures. Let’s take a look at the cost of going to pasture too early and some strategies to minimize the impact during this vulnerable period.

We will start by focusing on the cost to the forage plant. We all know that the plants in pastures and hayfields are perennial, which grow differently than annuals. The annual plant focuses on getting a small root system established, ripening a seed and then dying. The perennial plant focuses on establishing a large root system with a “savings account” of energy, so that it can survive winters, droughts and grazing. But perennials only tolerate these conditions if they can draw down on their stored energy when times are tough. Producers ultimately control the size of the savings account through their grazing management.

Yield losses

Grazing too early in the spring can cost you up to 45 per cent of that year’s forage yield. This is because perennials are never completely dormant; they use energy all winter long, just very slowly. After a long winter, a forage plant is weak and needs to replace root energy.

The plant’s first step is to use the last remaining root reserves to put up a few leaves to convert sunlight to energy. Continually stressing a forage plant — by early grazing or heavy frosts — can cost you the annual potential forage yield and ultimately the total loss of the stand. You have probably heard about this simple rule of thumb: for every day you graze too early in spring, you lose three days in fall.

Strategies

Here are two strategies to minimize the impact if you have no other choice but to use a pasture before it is ready. Consider skim grazing, or moving the cattle through the pasture quickly. This means they only graze off the very tips of the leaves. This allows the remaining leaves to keep building root reserves. How fast you move from pasture to pasture will depend on the size of your pastures and herd, but this could last from a few hours to a few days.

Another strategy is to utilize a sacrifice pasture. To do this, you keep the cattle on one pasture until other pastures are ready for grazing. Plan on bringing feed to supplement the poor pasture yields. The same pasture can be used each year but choosing a different pasture every year will minimize the stress on your pastures, thus minimizing the need to renovate any of them. Choose pastures that are high and dry to avoid punching up the soil and further injuring the forages. Rest your sacrifice pasture for a minimum of 60 days. Remember that it may need up to 100 days to recover.

There are also other options to prepare pastures for the future. Consider a number of strategies this summer as you prepare for this fall or next spring.

Planning for the future

The first option is to fertilize your stand according to soil tests. Adding as little as $48 per acre (50 lbs. per acre of N and 30 lbs. of P) can double your forage yields. At $110 per tonne for feed, all you need is another half-tonne of growth to cover your costs, or about three to four inches of growth.

Option two is to stockpile forage. You can leave the regrowth standing on one of your pastures for late-fall grazing, or for calving on next spring. This forage is a good source of roughage, and should be grazed with supplemental feed.

Another strategy is to use winter annuals. Plant fall rye or winter wheat this year for grazing next spring. You can graze it very hard if you do not plan on taking a cut of green feed next year, but it will regrow if you graze it carefully.

Your fourth option is to seed early varieties of grass. In drier areas, crested wheatgrass will tolerate heavy spring grazing. Meadow or creeping foxtail are best for areas with higher moisture throughout the year. The foxtails are very-early-spring growers but they are not really suited to mid-season grazing. Consult with a local forage specialist for recommendations.

There are a few things you can do to get through the spring crunch. In some cases it can benefit your operation to market animals if you simply will not have enough hay or pasture. Selling those cattle early will save the forages for the rest of them, and put you ahead in the long run.

If you are facing challenging pasture conditions and need advice on how to improve the situation, please contact your local MAFRI GO office to speak with a forage specialist.

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