It’s snowing on this second Sunday afternoon of the new year, which – at least to me – makes it advisable to think pasture management thoughts.

Crop Comments: Quadruple your hay investment’s returnOld-timer farmers always said it was a good idea to still have half of your initial hay inventory in the barn on the first of February. If grazing livestock farmers (graziers) don’t have that much hay left on the day before Groundhog Day, they might experience a hiccup in their upcoming pasture management programs – namely, running out of mechanically harvested feed too early usually means that mouth-harvesting ruminants will be turned out prematurely on their paddocks.

In the Northeast, by the first week of May (in most years) pasture is advanced to the point where it can be grazed, so that there’s abundant browsing before the vegetation is munched down to that critical four-inch level. The general recommendation for when to start grazing the most advanced paddocks is when mostly legume stands are 10 to 12 inches tall or when mostly grass stands are six to eight inches tall.

Regarding the correct time to pull ruminants off a given paddock, most grazing gurus believe that four inches tall is the rock bottom minimum height.

These experts don’t feel that it’s mandatory to graze swards down this short. They think of the four inches as a warning bell, not a goal. This is because it’s been shown that grazing shorter than that lengthens recovery time, thus delaying when animals can be returned to the paddock in question. Grazing too short reduces the total potential amount of mouth-harvestable forage on that paddock during the growing season.

One successful pasture management practice involves ruminants eating the top third of vegetation then being moved to the next paddock. In most situations, this avoids hitting that four-inch minimum, plus it ensures that later-grazed paddocks don’t get too far ahead of their browsing guests.

Not knowing whether pasture will come on slower than normal this year, it’s wise to keep feeding cattle in the barn until pastures achieve the heights mentioned earlier. Often when pasture managers put their livestock on paddocks too early, they actually think that their pastures are ready for cattle, sheep or goats. They are wrong.

Grazing gurus generally agree that pastures should not be grazed until plants have achieved three or four leaves or six to eight inches height. If the pasture is mostly legume, plants need to be 10 to 12 inches tall. Land grant institution research has shown that grazing plants before the third leaf stage can reduce total potential mouth-harvested forage yield for that growing season by at least half. Often grazing one week too early in spring causes a boomerang effect in which three weeks of autumn grazing are lost.

The main reason that graziers start pasturing their animals prematurely is that they’re running low on feed. They believe that any way they can avoid purchasing someone else’s hay to make it through winter (or a slow spring) is good business. However, if we can accept that shocking pastures when they’re too immature for hoof traffic is totally a bad idea, then buying someone else’s hay turns out to be the much lesser of two evils.

I back up this statement with a quote from grazing guru Greg Brann: “A bale fed in early spring… and waiting till the grass is ready… will be worth four bales of summer grass production later, not to mention the fertility transfer back to the soil.” That fertility came from nutrients produced on someone else’s farm. Four for one is a 300% return on investment – a lot better than what most of Wall Street has to offer – even if you have to first buy those bales.

My research revealed that Brann, a second-generation farmer and owner/operator of Big Spring Farm in Kentucky, emphasizes overall diversity on his farm. His efforts to increase diversity not only apply to forages but also to livestock. Brann rotationally grazes cattle, sheep and goats in one large herd. A large variety of forages, including both cool- and warm-season species, is strategically seeded for grazing and land management. He earned a bachelor’s degree in plant and soil science from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville with special emphasis on livestock and landscape design. In addition to overseeing his own farming operation, he runs a livestock management consulting service and often lectures at livestock conferences.

Quoting Brann’s grazing management wisdom again: “The starting grazing height will vary some according to the species. But generally, you want a minimum of eight inches of growth for most species, and rarely do you want to graze it down any lower than four inches. Maintaining adequate live plant material is critical in keeping the plant growing and thriving.”

He defines over-grazing as “grazing below where most carbohydrates are stored. This results in high utilization, but production can be reduced by as much as two-thirds.”

Regarding buying hay, in this year’s first issue of Country Folks, there were 16 ads for baled hay – most of it round, seven of which were organic. If a grazier decides to respond to these ads, there are two main options for managing such imported hay. The first is to roll out the roughage (if round bales) in the purchaser’s barn, obviously feeding them there. The second is to sacrifice a paddock, allowing animals to help themselves, supplementing that mouth-harvested forage with the purchased feed. Here their owner accepts that the paddock will be chewed up by hooves, with some feed being wasted, tromped into the ground. But the wasted feed self-composts into the soil mass, contributing to its health while allowing all the other paddocks to grow to their more desirable height.

Try to get the seller to forage test the hay you’re considering buying. Too little of that is being done.