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Gear Up For Spring
Here's how to get started with grazing this season.

Whether you are an experienced grazier or just thinking about getting started, now is the time to start planning how you will reap the benefits of better pasture management this season. If you were short on pasture last year due to drought, consider fencing and establishing forages on crop ground or fencing existing hay fields to bring more land into your pasture rotation, suggests Darrell Emmick, NRCS grasslands specialist for New York. Beginners have those options, as well as intensifying management on existing pastures, he adds.

"The breakeven yield for corn silage in New York is about 16 tons per acre," observes Emmick. "Unless you're consistently beating that, you're probably better off putting that land into well-managed, permanent pasture." In many cases, you can seed and fence cropland for less than the cost of growing corn, and your stock can start grazing high-quality forage on that land by midsummer, he adds.

Seed New Pastures

Choose easily accessible, well-drained cropland for new pastures. Before seeding, make sure soil pH is in the 6.0- to 6.5-range, and that soils test medium to high in phosphorous and potassium. Some forages are extremely sensitive to certain herbicides, so check for carryover you before plant. (Your local Extension staff can provide information on simple tests for herbicide carryover that you can do yourself.)

In most cases, the most reliable grass-legume combination for New York pastures is orchardgrass and ladino clover, says Emmick. Disk corn residue lightly, then drill or broadcast 8 pounds per acre of orchardgrass and 2 pounds per acre of ladino, he suggests. Cultipack broadcast seedings to ensure good seed-to-soil contact. On erosion-prone hillsides, consider no-tilling.

Emmick doesn't recommend seeding pasture with a small-grain nurse crop, because the extra competition can slow forage establishment. But if you prefer seeding this way, plan to harvest the small grain early as haylage or greenchop.

Choosing corn fields infested with quackgrass or bluegrass can work to your advantage. "The idea is to plant the ladino and orchardgrass and let Mother Nature fill in the gaps," says Emmick. Bluegrass and quackgrass both make excellent pasture and can quickly form a thick sod, he explains. Some fields are so infested that they may not even need seeding if they also have a "bank" of clover seed in the soil. But these naturally seeded pastures usually yield less the first season compared with planted pastures, Emmick cautions.

New forage varieties are coming out almost weekly, notes Emmick. Be sure to ask your seeds supplier for the latest maturing orchardgrass varieties available. Early-maturing varieties can take off in spring before the ground has dried out enough to start grazing, shading out clover and making it difficult to stay ahead of the grass.

Plan to take at least the first cutting of newly established pastures as a hay crop. Don't graze the stand until after the sod has had a chance to toughen up, usually by midsummer. "The best way to tell if you should turn in the animals to graze it is to grab a handful of forage and rip it, just the way a cow would tear off a mouthful," says Emmick. If it pulls out by the roots, harvest mechanically and test again next time the forage reaches grazing height.

"It's amazing how productive pastures can be on good corn ground," says Emmick. "I know one farmer who -- under optimal conditions -- took a cutting of hay and got four solid grazings, all in the establishment year."

Expect Less From Hay Fields

Old hay fields can provide some decent grazing. But don't expect them to yield as much as well-managed established pastures, warns Emmick. "Hay fields tend to be dominated by taller species and the stand usually isn't as dense as it is in intensively managed pastures," he explains. "You have to allocate larger acreages until the plants tiller out and fill in." (See box "The Thicker, The Better" below.)

With adequate moisture, intensively managed pastures may yield 4 to 6 tons of dry matter per acre. But you should expect as little as 2 tons per acre during the first year of grazing a hay field. If the stand is more than half alfalfa, take steps to prevent bloat or harvest mechanically.

To help hay fields fill in faster, consider frost-seeding clover with a broadcast seeder in early spring when the soil surface is undergoing a daily freeze-thaw cycle. Expect the best results in fields that were grazed hard or cut closely for hay in late fall. Otherwise, excessive residue may prevent good seed-to-soil contact.

Whether you're bringing hay fields into your pasture rotation or just starting to intensify your management on existing pastures, don't rush to reseed, cautions Emmick. "Change your management first. Then make sure your soil fertility and pH are adequate. Only consider changing your pasture species as a last resort. Often the plants you want to graze are already there."

Fencing And Water

"When it comes to pasture management, fencing is your base of control. Without the proper fencing, you haven't got anything," Emmick continues. If you want to start grazing this year but lack permanent fences, temporary fencing can work OK, but they require greater vigilance and management, cautions Emmick. You should plan to build permanent, multistrand, high-tensile wire perimeter fences as soon as possible. Also plan to build permanent fences for your main subdivisions, and use polywire and temporary posts just for subdividing paddocks, he suggests.

If you hire out fence building, expect to pay $1 or more per foot, says Emmick. If you do it yourself, you can probably keep costs down to about 20 cents per foot. "Once you have your permanent fencing in, all you'll need is a couple hundred dollars worth of polywire and temporary posts to adequately control grazing," he adds.

Don't let water be a barrier to getting started this year, either. "It's great to have water in every paddock, and no doubt, the closer the stock is to water, the better," says Emmick. "But even if your only water is back at the barn, the benefits of grazing should outweigh the drawbacks of making the cows walk for water."

Emmick cites University of Missouri research where beef cattle unencumbered by fencing freely grazed up to 900 feet from their water source. If you need to force dairy cows to walk more than a quarter mile for a drink, consider building a water wagon from an old running gear and a nurse tank to fill remote stock tanks until you have a chance to develop a more extensive water system.

Need Help?

There's no shortage of information resources to help New York farmers get started grazing, or to fine-tune their grazing management. A good place to start is with the GRAZE-NY toll-free hotline. (Phone: 800/472-0399.)

GRAZE-NY is also offering one-on-one technical assistance to livestock producers who reside in a six-county region in central New York. Special cost-sharing will also be available. Call the hotline for details.

Fencing dealers can be a good source of information on paddock layout and other fencing concerns. "One of the best sources of information is other farmers," notes Emmick. There are literally hundreds around the state who have faced some of the same barriers to and doubts about grazing that you face. Many are more than willing to share what they've learned and help you build confidence in your grazing management skills. Your local Extension staff may be able to put you in touch with an experienced grazier in your area, or you can call the GRAZE-NY hotline.

Better yet, plan to meet grazing enthusiasts at one of the meetings planned for later this winter. "To get started in grazing, first you have to change your mind, then you have to change your management," says Emmick. "If you believe that it works, it makes changing the management a whole lot easier."

The Thicker, The Better

With grazing, sometime one plus one doesn't equal two. For example, 1 acre of dense pasture with 1,200 pounds of available forage is better than 2 acres of thinner pasture with 600 pounds per acre of available forage, says Darrell Emmick, NRCS grasslands specialist.

"A cow will only take so many bites of pasture a day, then she'll quit grazing. On the thinner pasture, she may not fill up before she stops," explains Emmick. "The denser the stand, the more likely you are to maximize dry matter intake from pasture." That results in more milk or meat with lower supplemental feed costs, he adds.

Newly established pastures and old hay fields tend to be less dense than long-established pastures, but will thicken up over time with careful grazing management. Close grazing in spring, for example, will force grasses to tiller and fill in the gaps between plants. "Your goal," says Emmick, "should be to develop a thick, lush sward of high-quality forage to make grazing easier for your stock."

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