Home Grazing Gear Up For Grazing Contents When To Start Grazing Cool-Season Forages

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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 Grasslands Specialist.

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.

Clipping 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.

Plan 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?"

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Home Grazing Gear Up For Grazing Contents When To Start Grazing Cool-Season Forages

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