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5 grazing tips to ‘chew on’ before turnout

Christopher Clark for Progressive Cattleman Published on 28 March 2018
cattle grazing

Grazing season is just around the corner – a welcome break from cold weather, muddy lots and delivering feed to cows. As springtime approaches, it may be worthwhile to think about ways to improve your grazing system.

Are there things you could do differently to extend the grazing season, improve profitability, increase carrying capacity, improve conservation, etc.? Here are a few points to consider as you prepare for the upcoming grazing season:

1. Delay turnout until grass is growing well

The appropriate date to begin grazing depends on geographic location, species of plants, weather and other such factors. Tall cool-season grasses should be 4 to 6 inches tall prior to turnout and Kentucky bluegrass should be at least 2 inches tall. It can be tempting to turn cows out a bit early, but premature turnout can have a negative impact on overall yield for the grazing season. Pastures that were overgrazed the previous season will be slower to take off and may require additional time prior to grazing. If you must begin grazing earlier than desired, strive to maintain a modest stocking rate. Additionally, consider the use of cover crops to be grazed. Spring grazing cover crops can work well to bridge the gap between winter feeding and grazing of perennial pastures.

2. Utilize some form of rotational grazing

Rotational grazing can allow paddocks to rest and recover, ultimately improving forage yield. Rotational grazing can also encourage more uniform use of pasture forage, promote more uniform manure distribution and promote plant diversity. There are many ways to incorporate rotational grazing into an operation. Ease into it. Experiment and research to find what works for you. You do not have to transition overnight from a continuous grazing system to daily rotations. Start with a cross fence or two. Even two or three paddocks will be better than one large, continuously grazed pasture.

3. Build plant diversity

Good pasture management (rotational grazing, not overgrazing, etc.) will promote plant diversity. Additional species could also be introduced through frost-seeding or interseeding. Consider the use of additional grass species and legumes. Legumes can offer several benefits such as nitrogen fixation, drought tolerance, high-quality forage and continued production through the heat of the summer. Some legumes can be a bloat risk when consumed in large quantities, and incorporation of legumes will have an impact on your weed control program. With some effort though, legumes can be high-quality, productive components of pasture mixes.

4. Monitor pasture condition and body condition of the cattle

Keep an eye on pastures throughout the grazing season, paying attention to species present, live plant cover, plant vigor, pattern of use, erosion and other such factors. The Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) has developed a pasture condition score worksheet that can help evaluate your pasture based on 10 important criteria. Additionally, monitor body condition score (BCS) of your grazing cattle. Any significant loss of condition throughout the grazing season is evidence that something in your grazing program needs attention.

5. Consider fertilization to improve productivity

Fertilization with nitrogen can improve overall productivity and yield. When other growing conditions are good, grasses respond well to nitrogen fertilization. However, be strategic in how you utilize nitrogen. In some parts of the country, cool-season grasses flourish in the spring, even without fertilization. It may be wise to think about stocking rate and overall forage utilization in the spring versus the cost of fertilization. Perhaps later application or split application (spring/fall) would be more beneficial than a heavy application in early spring. Soil testing can be used to evaluate soil pH, potassium and phosphorous, and management decisions can be made based on soil test results. Incorporation of legumes into pastures can have an impact on your fertilization strategy. It may be worthwhile to consult with an agronomist to determine the fertilization regimen most appropriate for your situation.  end mark

Christopher Clark
  • Christopher Clark

  • Beef Field Specialist
  • Iowa State University
  • Email Christopher Clark

PHOTO: Staff photo.