Home Grazing Gear Up For Grazing Contents Beat Summer Slump

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Beat Summer Slump
Keep stock up to speed even when cool-season forages slow to a crawl.

It happens nearly every summer. In May and June, your cows could barely keep up with the grass. Paddocks of cool-season forages were ready to graze again just two weeks after you pulled off the stock, and the haybine never had a chance to cool down. Now in July and August, growth has slowed to a standstill, and you wonder where you will move the cows to next.

You've got summer slump.

The bad news is that there is nothing you can do about the growth habits of the cool-season grasses and clovers that are so well-adapted to our climate and soils. But the good news is you can manage them to minimize the downside of the summer slump, and have decent grazing all summer long.

"The nature of the beast is that you have very high production for the first two months after the cool-season forages break dormancy, then their production drops by half or more," says Darrell Emmick, NRCS state grasslands specialist based in Cortland, N.Y. Cool-season forages grow best when daytime temperatures are in the 60 F- to 70 F-range, Emmick explains. During peak spring growth, orchardgrass, for example, easily produces 100 pounds of dry matter per acre each day, and can even top 200 pounds.

As a result, more than half of the annual production of cool-season forages comes in the first two months of the growing season. July and August usually contribute just 10 percent each to the yearly production total, and sometimes less if high temperatures are accompanied by moisture stress. Cool-season forages rebound some in fall when temperatures moderate, but not to the levels of their spring flush because of the shorter fall days.

During cool summers, growth may be relatively even, as in '94 when some New York graziers maintained a two- to three-week rotation for most of the season. But that's the exception to the rule. Most years, you'll need to manage for the inevitable slump. Here are some strategies to help you cope:

Plant more pasture. "When it comes to beating the slump, planning is everything," says Emmick. "And the first thing you need to plan is to have enough acres of cool-season forages in your pasture system." As a rough rule of thumb, that means about one acre per milker or beef cow-calf pair on well-managed cool-season pastures -- more on poorer ground or less-intensively managed pasture and perhaps slightly less on exceptionally productive land.

Another good guide is to look at how much of your pasture you have to mechanically harvest during peak growth in spring, suggests Emmick. "The cows should only be able to keep up with about half of your paddocks and you should be taking the other half. If not, plant more pasture." Bringing those other paddocks back into the rotation in summer should extend your rest periods long enough to ensure a constant supply of forage.

Of the cool-season grasses, timothy and bluegrass are notorious slumpers, and bluegrass is especially vulnerable to moisture stress. Emmick reports that in New Zealand -- where high-yielding but slump-prone ryegrasses and white clover are popular -- there is much interest in planting some ground to "summer active" species such as red clover, orchardgrass, tall fescue, reed canarygrass and others that are more heat-tolerant.

Prepare pastures. Close grazing in early spring -- leaving just a two-inch residual -- helps pastures prepare for summer slump, Emmick points out. When stock nip off the growing point of grasses, it encourages them to tiller and send off sideshoots from the collar, thickening the stand. As the slump approaches, leave slightly more residual -- about 3 inches -- so that the sideshoots aren't completely grazed off. "This leaves a little more of a solar collector on the plants to help them recover faster and helps shade the ground so that it won't dry out as fast," observes Emmick.

Watch your fertilizer. If you plan to put nitrogen fertilizer on grass pastures, you need to do it immediately preceding a shower, cautions Emmick. "It won't do you any good to put it on dry ground with a dormant stand," he says.

Keep rotating. Don't allow paddocks to go more than 30 days without grazing them, even if the cool-season species don't reach the optimum 6- to 8-inch grazing height. After a month, older leaves start to wear out and die, so you begin to lose both quantity and forage quality, says Emmick. Cows will have to work harder for what is forage is there, and you'll need to adjust your supplemental rations accordingly.

Graze hayfields. If you start to run out of pasture, you can bring other hayfields into your rotation. "I wouldn't plant alfalfa just to graze, but it will keep growing during the summer when other forages shut down," notes Emmick. Avoid pure stands and take precautions to prevent bloat.

Consider warm-season perennials. Peak growth of warm-season grasses, such as switchgrass and big bluestem, comes during cool-season forages' summer slump. But they are a challenge to establish in our climate, require special management to maintain a stand, and don't produce dairy-quality forage. They may, however, fill a niche for beef producers willing to take the extra effort they require, especially on droughty soils where cool-season forages won't outcompete them. Another drought- and heat-tolerant forage is puna chickory. (Available from Oldfield Seeds. See Seed Sources, below.) This taprooted perennial was developed in New Zealand, and can be sown with cool-season forages or as a pure stand.

Supplement with annual pastures. Annual pastures can make an effective complement to perennial pastures, especially during the summer slump. Brassicas such as turnips and rape can provide high-energy grazing in summer, then regrow for a late fall or early winter grazing. Ohio corn breeder Dick Baldridge has developed a composite of silage corns designed specifically for grazing (available from Oldfield Seeds). It can be no-tilled into a killed or suppressed sod or broadcast and cultipacked into disked ground. Grazing can start about 50 days after planting and continue for about two months after that, using polywire to ration out the stand.

While you save on harvest costs with annual pastures compared to feeding in the barn, you still have the yearly seed, fertilizer, tillage and other associated costs of growing the crop. "Your first step to beat the summer slump should still be to make sure you have enough cool-season pasture," reiterates Emmick.

Seed Sources
Considering reseeding or planting more pasture? First check with your local seed dealer to see what they have available, or contact these forage seed suppliers for more information:

Albert Lea Seed House, P.O. Box 127, Albert Lea, MN 56007; (800) 352-5247.
Cascade International Seed Co., 8483 W. Stayton Rd., Aumsville, OR 97325; (800) 826-6799.
Cutting Edge Agriproducts, Rt. 1, Box 234AA, Lowry City, MO 64763; (800) 753-6511.
Byron Seed Supply, RR 1, Box 92, Marshall, IN 47859.
Halsey Seeds, 2059 Rt. 96, Trumansburg, NY 14886; (607) 387-5788.
Kinder Seed, 238 Holiday Rd., Mexico, NY 13114; (315) 963-8383.
Modern Agriproducts, 3770 Aldergrove Rd., Ferndale, WA 98248; (206) 366-4343.
Oldfield Seeds, P.O. Box 577, Winchester, KY 40392; (800) 448-5145, OldSeed@mis.net.
Olds Seed, Madison, WI, 53707; (800) 356-7333.
Peterson Seed, P.O. Box 346, Savage, MN 55378; (612) 445-2606.
SeedWay, P.O. Box 250, Hall, NY 14463; (716) 526-6391.
Welter Seed, 17724 Highway 136, Onslow, IA 52321; (800) 728-8450.
Wolf River Valley Seeds, N2976 County M, White Lake, WI 54491; (715) 882-3100.

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Home Grazing Gear Up For Grazing Contents Beat Summer Slump

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