North Central Research Extension Center


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The Spring Pasture Challenge


April and May bring their own challenges to cattlemen as has been evident in many areas this year. Producers are anxious to move new pairs out of muddy, dirty lots and would like the cows to feed themselves through grazing rather than be fed daily as has been done for the past 4 to 5 months. The problem is we are still in a period of unpredictable weather and if cows are moved out there is still a need for protection from a late storm. But more importantly pastures in northern regions haven’t been ready to graze yet. This year cool and/or dry conditions have limited grass growth even of early cool season grass species. Early turn out results in quick consumption of the limited growth and a marked reduction in the season’s carrying capacity of pastures depended on for the summer season. Without deferral or a rest period the grass never gets a chance to get ahead of the cows needs limiting the season’s production and potentially damaging the stand for the future.

This almost annual dilemma can be minimized by some planning and managements. An acreage of cool season grass pasture convenient to the operations headquarters would be ideal. Crested wheat grass is one of the earliest growing and ready to graze species available. To maximize its usefulness and carrying capacity it should be annually fertilized and allowed to rest from one year’s spring use to the next.

This will stockpile some old growth for next year’s consumption and also leave the proceeding year’s fall shoots which will be springs early start. The temptation to go back in the fall and graze when all other pastures are depleted can be hard to resist but should be avoided if you need early spring pasture. Typically such a pasture would only be ready for graze by early May. Therefore if turnout is in April it should be divided by fencing and a limited area sacrificed for a clean dry place to spread out the herds while hay, silage, or grain is fed to supplement the limited grazing. Preparation should be in place with temporary windbreaks, calf shelter, etc on locations not protected by windbreaks or accessible to wintering facilities in time of bad weather.

Some other options being done by a few producers is to bale graze a field of tame grass in which hay bales made the previous year are left in the field as a source of feed for next years early turn out. Other options include the use of farmed forages such as spring cleanup grazing of corn or swathed annuals used for fall pasture, or spring grazing of fall planted rye or winter wheat when it gets 6 to 8 inches tall. There is however risk of soil compaction on heavy land used for grazing during these wet months.

For producers practicing low management season long grazing, while putting cows out early solves a spring problem, it comes at a cost.  Every day out before grazing readiness probably cost 2 or 3 days of potential grazing latter in the season.

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