Believe it or not, sometime in the next 40 days you will be turning animals out to pasture.

How you make decisions at this critical time is really important. I fully admit that I’ve been in all these situations over my 37 years of managing perennial pastures. It allows me to broach this subject with some vigor.

To me, the first grazing of spring is always difficult because you need to think how you left the plants last year, take into account the fertility and measure daily growth to predict the future forage inventory. This is against the backdrop of animals transitioning their rumens to high protein rocket fuel, unpredictable weather and grass production predictions within a sward that has clumps of orchardgrass and a low carpet of everything else. If you start well, there’s a good chance you will end the grazing season well.

Do you want to be more in control of your first grazing this year and create a better situation for the whole year? It’s never too late to start thinking, planning and making more informed decisions about your impending grazing season. Get yourself situated with a grazing chart/plan, monitoring regime and be proactive in your decision-making, right out of the barn.

“If you don’t have a plan for where you are going it is very hard to bring forage supply and demand into balance,” said renowned grazing consultant Jim Gerrish. “Grass does not grow at the same rate every day of the year, nor does animal consumption rate stay the same. Imbalance leads to inefficiency building into the rest of the system and unnecessary economical and emotional stresses for producers. An increase in costs and decrease in income is very often the outcome of not having a grazing plan.”

At this time of year, it’s invaluable to take stock of what feed you have on the farm, how many animals, how much they’re eating daily, how available local feed is and at what price and how the pastures are coming on and which ones may be ready first. The old adage of “A bale fed in early spring and waiting till the grass is ready will be worth four bales of summer grass production” still holds true.

“A key difference between a simple rotational system and a higher quality system is that the better grazing systems pay close attention to how fast plants are growing. This requires that the recovery period after each grazing be increased as growth rates slow to make sure plants are always fully recovered before the next grazing,” emphasized Vermont pasture consultant Sarah Flack. “This key principal of variable recovery periods is essential to create the highest quality pastures. Successful grazing management pays close attention to the needs of the plants, the livestock and soils.”

Unless you’re reducing grass competition in an effort to overseed a pasture or some other goal, overgrazing in spring should be avoided. “Early spring grazing damages plants and limits herbage production by removing leaf area from grass that has not recovered from winter dormancy,” said Lee Manske, range scientist at NDSU’s Dickinson Research Extension Center. “That reduces the forage available to livestock later in the season and decreases profits.”

Dr. Rachel Gilker said, “Pastures should not be grazed until the three- to four-leaf stage or when the plants are at least six to eight inches tall. If you have a high proportion of legumes in the pasture, do not graze until the plants are eight to 12 inches tall. Significant research has showed grazing plants before the third leaf stage can result in the loss of over 60% of the potential forage yield. Grazing one week too early in the spring will sacrifice three weeks of grazing in the fall.”

According to Manske, “when only 25% of the grass tiller leaf area is removed during the first grazing period, the quantity of secondary tillers increases 38% during that same growing season and increases 64% to 173% during the second growing season.” When 50% of the grass tiller leaf area is removed during the first grazing period, the quantity of secondary tillers decreases 53% that same growing season and decreases 63% to 144% during the second growing season.

Because I work with farmers on grazing management, I have seen some discouraging wrecks when animals are allowed on pasture too soon and meander on all the fields, taking the land to the “surface of the moon.” It basically ruined the pastures for the year. I’ve also seen the same farmer on the same land employ holding the animals until the right time and prosper just fine. It’s really about the grazing management decisions we make and not the animals’ fault.

Tracking these kinds of decisions on a grazing chart and measuring the results over time is really critical to knowing if this strategy works for your operation. You’ll have to make your own decision according to what you’re managing toward. Starting well and ending well may be as close as the mirror.

Need some help? Contact your local Soil & Water Conservation District or NRCS professional.

by Troy Bishopp