by Troy Bishopp, Madison SWCD Grazing Specialist

Many livestock farmers are concerned about the effect of high fuel and fertilizer prices on agriculture this season as well as myriad other input and market worries. The situation isn’t anything new. The good news is we have a plentiful resource that can help buffer some of the input pain. It’s our pastures – provided we manage them correctly and leave the excuses at the gate.

Mother Nature showered many of us with a March 25 thunderstorm, which according to Crop Consultant Paris Reidhead indicates our first frost will happen six months later (on Sept. 25). There’s no time like the present to start planning for a successful grazing season. The key to making money from pasture-based enterprises is to “start well.”

Sometime in the next 30 days you will be turning animals out to pasture. Some of you will have a plan; others won’t. Results will be highly variable but they don’t have to be. When done correctly, pasture plant quality and soil health can improve, animal welfare can benefit, feed costs can go down, animal performance can increase and farm finances can become more sustainable.

To start well in early spring, 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), how the pastures are coming on and which ones may be ready first. It’s a good time to consider what stocking rate balance best applies to your specific farm. It might also be a good time to call your local agency professional to plan, walk the land and vet critical decisions.

Start well this grazing season

According to Grazing Specialist Troy Bishopp, it’s invaluable to take stock of what feed you have on the farm, how many animals, how much they’re eating, how available local feed is (and at what price), how the pastures are coming on and which ones may be ready first. Photo by Troy Bishopp

Because I work with farmers on grazing management, I have seen some pretty bad wrecks when animals were allowed on the 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. It’s really about the grazing management decisions we make – it’s not the animals’ fault.

American Grazing Lands Consultant Jim Gerrish said, “Grazing too short is the biggest problem in livestock systems.”

“Unless you’re reducing grass competition in an effort to over-seed a pasture or some other goal, overgrazing in the 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. Samantha Glaze-Corcoran from UMass-Amherst wants farmers to consider how they left their pasture swards over winter before they spring into grazing. “If you overgrazed last summer, waited for fall regrowth and overgrazed again before winter because you were low on feed, those plants got hit with a one-two punch. This action can affect green-up and stand density. The plants might be dealing with these residual stressors and will need more recover time this spring. It’s all about the health of the plants and soil if you want to have a successful season.”

Grazing Specialist Greg Brann suggested, “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.

Dr. Rachel Gilker and many accredited grazing professionals preach: “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.”

Vermont-based Grazing Consultant Sarah Flack emphasized, “A key difference between a simple rotational system and a higher quality system is that the better grazing practitioners pay close attention to how fast plants are growing and measure and monitor it. Successful grazing management pays close attention to the needs of the plants, the livestock and soils … 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. This key principle of variable recovery periods is essential to create the highest quality pastures.”

You’re probably thinking “Easy to plan, tougher to implement.” But the impetus for the livestock farmer, in these trying times, is if you run out of grass you’re out of options. We’ve got to get in the management mindset that it takes grass to grow grass and to stop being scared of wasting a little grass if you want top performance for your animals and soil. Grazing management planning and execution is a fertility program that walks on four legs. A $40 manure-spreading reel is cheaper than one with beaters where a cow pie enhances the grass and soil biology. It’s naturally going to increase your bottom line when correctly applied.

Are you ready to start making money by managing your pastures better from the onset? “Money saved is money earned.” If you need a hand to start off your grazing well, contact your local Soil & Water Conservation District or NRCS conservation professional for help.