In his excellent article titled “Start Well This Grazing Season,” Troy Bishopp explained some of the things that go wrong when livestock people put their animals on pasture too early. Bishopp is Madison County’s Soil and Water Grazing Specialist. He explained that paddocks being grazed too early resemble lunar surfaces due to this pock mark-type trauma. He also said that such land can be properly managed, so that it supports cattle adequately and while so doing maintains its own health. When things do go wrong with traumatized pastures, it doesn’t make sense to blame the grazing animals.
Most grazing gurus believe that unless the grazier purposely wants to reduce competitive vegetation – e.g., in attempting to over seed a pasture – spring overgrazing should be avoided. This is because early spring grazing damages plants and limits herbage production, as it destroys leaf area from forages that have not recovered from winter dormancy. Such injury to the paddock reduces total grazeable roughage available to livestock – and that fact ultimately reduces profits. In the same sense that jumping the gun with mouth-harvested pasture is counter-productive, so is premature tillage of soil. The latter concept is something I recently addressed in a column. Patience is a biblical virtue; when it comes to managing soils and pastures, it’s also a very wise farm business input.
In her textbook “The Art and Science of Grazing,” Sarah Flack stressed the importance of plant roots and how they can suffer from overgrazing. She wrote that we commonly focus on just the above-ground parts of pasture plants, since they’re the most visible. But these leaves and stems aren’t the only parts affected by grazing. Like leaves, the roots of pasture forage species grow and then die, but roots tend to live much longer than leaves. The diversity and types of plants, as well as the actual grazing practices, have a large impact on root health and vigor. She also wrote that roots perform a critical service for plants and soil health.
Roots anchor plants in soil and take in water and minerals needed for plant growth. If root mass is reduced due to poor grazing management, plants become less able to take in water and minerals during droughts. And this means that plants are less likely to thrive during poor grazing conditions. Overgrazed plants with weakened roots are less able to hold the soil as well as keep the plants in place. This inability promotes erosion.
As I’m writing this column long-hand, my part of Central New York has been without electricity for about a day and a half, due to heavy, wet snowfall. This precipitation is the “poor man’s fertilizer” that I wrote about a couple columns ago – “spring snow,” “heart attack snow,” call it what you will. If you’re reading this, it’s proof that I got the final draft typed up and delivered to Lee Newspapers in the nick of time.
Often when graziers put their livestock on pastures too early, these folks actually think that the pastures are ready for cattle, sheep or goats. They are wrong. Basically, they jumped the gun due to lack of knowledge (to express it kindly). Again, let’s stress that patience is a virtue. Well-studied grazing experts are in general agreement that pastures should not be grazed until plants have achieved three or four leaves, or six to eight inches height, whichever is easier to assess. If the pasture is mostly legume, plants need to be eight to 12 inches tall. Extensive research has shown that grazing plants before the third leaf stage can reduce potential mouth-harvested forage yield by at least half. Often grazing one week early in spring causes a boomerang effect of sacrificing three weeks of autumn grazing.
Let me point out that part of this management program requires pulling ruminants off paddocks before the forage height drops below four inches.
The main reason that that graziers put their livestock out to pasture too early 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, like we’re experiencing right now – is a good business move. But if we can accept that shocking pastures when they’re not ready for livestock traffic is a fundamentally bad idea, then buying someone else’s hay will turn out to be the lesser of two evils.
On the subject of buying hay, in the April 18 issue of our paper, in the classified ad section, there are 21 ads for hay (mostly baleage); seven of them are for organic hay crops. If a grazier decides to respond to these ads, there two main options for managing such imported hay. First is to roll out the roughage (if they’re round bales) in the barn. The second is to sacrifice a paddock, allowing animals to help themselves. Here the owner accepts that the paddock will be chewed up, to some extent, by hooves, and some feed will be wasted, trampled into the ground. But the wasted feed self-composts into the soil mass, contributing to its health.
The associated animal manure didn’t have to be hauled from animal housing for land spreading. And, very importantly, all the other paddocks in that grazing program did not get grazed prematurely.
Let me close by borrowing a paragraph from Bishopp’s aforementioned article. He quotes fellow grazing guru Gregg 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.”
I’d say that’s a pretty good return on investment on that bale – even if you have to buy it from someone else.