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When To Start Grazing Cool-Season Forages
Not too early, and not too late.
When is the best time to start grazing cool-season forages? "Ideally,
when the plants are about 3 inches tall and the soil is dry enough to support
the animals without damaging the plants," says Darrell Emmick, NRCS
Don't wait until forage is at the ideal
grazing height (about 6 inches for most grasses and clovers in New York) to get
your stock out on pasture. If you do, the forage will quickly get ahead of you
and lose quality, and you won't get the staggered regrowth needed to make the
second round of grazing go smoothly.
Don't start grazing too
early either, or you risk reducing yields on subsequent grazings or even killing
the stand, cautions Emmick. When temperatures reach 40 F and forages break
dormancy, their carbohydrate root reserves may be dangerously low, often just
enough to fuel two to three days of growth. Most of the reserves have been used
up keeping the plants alive over winter. "If you cut off those first
`solar collectors,' the plants may not have enough energy left to send up any
more," he explains.
With our usually wet springs, the soil
is often too moist to support the animals when the forage is ready to graze. In
that case, Emmick suggests waiting until the plants are about 6 inches tall.
The thicker growth will help support the animals. Also, graze stock for short
periods, and only allow them to top the stand down to 3 to 4 inches. Similarly,
if forage growth gets beyond the ideal stage before you can start grazing, offer
the animals larger areas for shorter periods. "They'll pick out the best
and leave the rest," says Emmick.
In either of these cases,
plan to closely clip these paddocks, or allow them to grow some more and harvest
them mechanically. If you don't, they will often bounce back quickly and forage
quality will suffer before you are ready to graze them again.
will force the grass to tiller, thickening the stand for later grazings, and
reduce it's early competition with clovers. This can improve forage quality
when these paddocks come back into the rotation. Let clippings wilt for a day
and you can turn in dry cows and heifers to clean them up.
to graze well-drained, accessible paddocks first. But if soil conditions are
less than ideal, you may want to start grazing in a "sacrifice area."
Chose a paddock that's thin and in need of renovation, anyway. Broadcast grass
or clover seed (or perhaps rely on the bank of seeds that may already be in the
soil), then turn in the stock for a quick grazing. Their hoof action may damage
the stand that's there, but simultaneously will plant the broadcasted seed or
germinate the seed that's already there.
Keep in mind, however,
that the seed bank may not be what you had in mind. Be prepared to have the
area come back to burdock or other weeds which may require a full renovation to
eradicate, warns Emmick.
Rotate your stock through paddocks in
early spring until the ones they grazed early have regrown to about 6 inches.
Then rotate stock back to those paddocks, and plan to mechanically harvest any
they haven't yet grazed. "Don't keep pushing ahead and let those first
paddocks grow too tall before regrazing or you'll be chasing poor-quality forage
for the rest of the season," says Emmick. "Once you get cows used to
grazing high-quality feed, why would you want to turn back?"
©1997 Committee for
Sustainable Farm Publishing
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