Setting the Stage for Your Grazing Season

The first couple of weeks is when you set the stage for the coming grazing season. Pastures that are overgrazed at the beginning of the season will never reach their potential for the year. Keep a residual grass height of 3-4 inches so that there is lots of leaf area to intercept sunlight and photosynthesize into plant growth. Leaving this amount of material will also support the root system which is a mirror image of the top growth. Short plants have shallow roots and will be much more prone to drought conditions; deep rooted plants can find moisture throughout a prolonged dry spell.

Watch the growth in all your pastures and move cattle frequently enough to arrive at the last pasture before the seed heads have emerged and the plants are so large that the cattle have difficulty biting them off and swallowing. Animal intake is very much a function of bite size, a big bite of easily swallowed grass will result in higher intakes and more productivity in the form of gain and milk production.

Late May through early June is an ideal time to apply fertilizer to your pastures. Phosphorous and potassium levels should be maintained in the medium soil test range, plants, like animals, need adequate nutrition to grow. Ideally pastures will have greater than 50% legume content - alfalfa, white clover, trefoil and red clover are all excellent pasture legume species. Nitrogen applications should be made to pastures that contain less than 25-40% legume content. 50 kg of nitrogen per hectare or 45 lbs. per acre is likely the optimum rate of actual nitrogen (100 lbs. of urea/ac). Applying in late May through June while the grass is still in a strong growth phase will make for better utilization. To be effective the nitrogen fertilizer needs to be dissolved and taken into the soil by rainfall, the odds of a rain after application in May-June is very good- think about how hard it is to make dry hay in early to mid-June!

Utilizing a rotational grazing system that has the livestock moving to a fresh paddock every 1-3 days will give much more even distribution of manure and urine resulting in more consistent plant growth throughout the paddocks.

Sub-divide paddocks, ideally livestock are on a fresh patch of pasture every day and certainly every five days. Fresh pasture means better intakes, less wastage through tramping, laying and fouling with manure and urine, and less over grazing that slows the growth of those plants that have been grazed shorter than 3-4 inches. Frequent moves also improve the distribution of manure and urine on the pasture which will promote more even plant growth. Sub dividing can be easily accomplished with an electric wire on a reel and a few step-in-posts, a few minutes invested in temporary sub dividing fences will pay very significant dividends in increased pasture productivity.

Annual crops and cover crops can provide extra pasture for late summer and into the fall. Can you seed into cereal stubble after grain harvest? Did you frost seed red clover into your wheat fields - it can be grazed in September - November. Brassicas, cereals, sorghum-sudan grass, are all options to provide extra pasture or forage from fields that would otherwise be sitting idle from late summer into late fall. How you manage your pastures during May will set the course of the remainder of the year. If you keep these points as your focus - frequent rotation, graze at the proper stage, don't over graze, and maintain soil fertility you will set the stage for optimum performance of your pastures.

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