Manage early spring grazing carefully to ensure proper nutrition

Grazing too early can also reduce forage production by as much as 45 per cent

Cattle grazing in a pasture

Another long, cold winter has many producers trying to balance dwindling feed supplies and late spring pasture.

Some may be forced to take cattle to pasture earlier than recommended and this will affect cost and future pasture production. While it is tempting to take cattle to pasture as soon as the snow goes, it can be costly if you do not address a few important issues.

Your livestock are likely to be in late gestation or have young calves at foot. These are two critical stages of production and the animals’ nutritional needs must be met. If they’re not, it can mean a real cost in lower first-service conception rates and lower average daily gains. Generally, early spring pasture doesn’t have enough forage to satisfy your cows’ daily dry matter intake needs. Pastures overgrazed in fall and used for spring grazing often have less than 112 kg of dry matter forage per hectare which amounts to less than 100 pounds per acre. This will severely affect your cows’ body condition, restrict forage intake and lead to suppressed milk yields for the calf.

Grazing too early in the spring can also cost in loss of future production. It can cost you up to 45 per cent of a year’s forage production. A well-managed pasture can yield 400 per cent more forage than a badly managed one — and good management starts in the spring. Continually stressing the forage plant will cost in future production and eventual degradation of the stand.

Meeting spring nutritional needs

If producers feel forced to pasture their cattle early, there are some things they can do to reduce the negative impact on pasture and ensure their cattle’s nutritional needs are met.

Skim graze: This practice moves cattle through the pasture system at a very rapid rate. The objective is to only take off the very tips of the leaves. It allows the plant to continue photosynthesis with the remaining part of the leaf. This is not as harmful to the plant as grazing off the whole leaves. The rate at which you have to move from pasture to pasture will depend on the size of your pastures and herd — from a few hours to a few days.

Sacrifice pasture: Producers use this practice to choose a field and keep the cattle on it until other pastures are ready for grazing. The grazing is usually supplemented with hay and/or concentrates to meet nutritional needs. The same pasture can be used year after year or you can choose a different pasture each year.

Choose only pastures that are high and dry, because punching soft soils will further injure the forages and reduce production. Regardless of the pasture you use, a very long rest period of 60 to 100 days will need to follow this early-season grazing.

Planning for the late arrival of spring

Stockpiled forage: This practice saves standing forage from earlier in the year to use at a later time. It is often used in the fall and early winter but can also be used early the next spring. Research shows that lactating cows on stockpiled grass will need some form of supplement. Stockpiled forage should be feed tested before use.

However, the Western Beef Development Centre suggests common values for Total Digestible Nutrients (TDN) would range from 50 to 58 per cent and Crude Protein (CP) six to 10 per cent. Lactating cows require greater than 60 per cent TDN and greater than 11 per cent CP. Supplement with 3.2 kg (seven pounds) of good-quality, second-cut, alfalfa hay or 4.1 kg (nine pounds) of processed, barley grain for every cow every third day if they’re grazing stockpiled grass. Stockpiled forage has the advantage of giving you a place to put cattle early in the season that will provide feed, a clean space for newborn calves and a healthy, resilient forage stand.

  • Winter annuals: Fall rye or winter wheat that is seeded in the fall can be used the next spring for grazing. Because you will not save this stand, your herd can graze it very heavily. It will be a later forage resource than stockpiled forage but has the advantage of being high-quality feed.
  • Seed early-starting grass: In drier areas with good drainage, crested wheatgrass will provide early-season grazing and has the advantage of standing up to heavy grazing. Unfortunately, it is not adapted to moister areas or heavier soils. Meadow or creeping foxtail may be suitable in areas with higher moisture and good moisture throughout the year. Both of these species are very early spring growers, but are not really suited to mid-season grazing. Talk to a local forage specialist for recommendations.
  • Always keep enough hay on hand to get you through to June. This is a common practice across the Prairies, but poor production the past few years has reduced reserves. If you want to source more hay, contact your local MAFRD GO office for availability on the Manitoba Hay List; or check local papers or businesses for ads in your area.

There are many options to get through the spring crunch. Most require planning the year before. However, even with the best planning, weather and other factors can stress a forage system. You can reduce your livestock numbers, if you simply will not have enough hay or pasture. Doing this early will protect your resources and put you ahead in the long run.

For more information or help with spring grazing, contact your local MAFRD GO office. For the office nearest to you, go to: and click on contact.

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