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West: Spring grazing strategies

Ryan D. Rhoades for Progressive Cattleman Published on 24 April 2019

As the weather gets warmer and green grass has emerged, many ranchers face some tough decisions. Should cows be turned out to graze or continue to be fed harvested forage? Perhaps harvested forage supplies are depleted, and the thought of purchasing additional feed resources sounds expensive.

Regardless of the situation, maintaining pasture health should be the priority. Grazing based on the sight of green grass or a predetermined calendar date could have economic consequences, jeopardizing future range production and cattle performance. Since spring grazing is key to long-term pasture success and attaining profitability goals, here are a couple of considerations to help improve your bottom line.

1. Consider grazing start time: Feeding cows longer could be cost-effective. Evaluate based on the cost of buying additional feed and the impact of early grazing on pasture health.

Early grazing can stress plants and reduce potential forage production by 45 to 60 percent. Instead of calendar date, use leaf stage to determine grazing start time. Cool-season grasses should be in three-leaf stage prior to grazing, warm-season grasses in four-leaf stage. These stages are achieved on different dates each year, so survey key plants for leaf stage often.

2. Consider grazing location: Never graze the same pasture at the same time each year. Vary where cows begin spring grazing. If not, vulnerable plant species will eventually be eliminated. Pastures grazed hard during the fall and winter are not good candidates for spring grazing.

Avoid early grazing on native range. If available, use pastures planted with introduced cool-season grasses (i.e., crested wheatgrass or smooth brome). These pastures are usually ready to graze two to three weeks before native range. Even though these grasses tolerate early grazing pressure, apply moderate stocking rates due to low forage production.

3. Consider grazing management practices: If alternative feed supplies are limited or cost-prohibitive, and access to a grazing-ready pasture is nonexistent, consider first utilizing pastures not fully grazed during the previous year. Supplementation with grain to provide adequate dry matter may be needed. Then rest pasture throughout the summer months.

Additionally, consider initially grazing largest pastures with low stocking rates and increasing density as the grazing season develops. Flash grazing or quickly moving cows through pastures is another strategy to utilize early spring growth. Grazing range-ready pasture is the common link among each consideration. Good spring grazing management requires planning and patience. Maintaining pasture health can help improve profitability.  end mark

Ryan D. Rhoades
  • Ryan D. Rhoades

  • Assistant Professor
  • Beef Extension Specialist - Colorado State University
  • Email Ryan D. Rhoades