By Trevor Lennox, PAg, Range Management Extension Specialist
The late spring of 2018 has resulted in many producers having to rely on stored feed longer than normal. Many producers are anxiously looking forward to the sight of green grass, so cattle can be turned out to pasture. Unfortunately, the downside to turning cattle out too early is pasture health can easily deteriorate when grazing occurs too early in the season.
Let’s begin by reviewing what growing conditions were like last year: the abnormally dry conditions in 2017 significantly reduced forage production, forcing many producers to graze their pastures heavier than normal. This higher-than-normal utilization on pastures caused them to go into winter with minimal litter cover and reduced carbohydrate reserves.
Looking ahead to 2018, the date of turnout on pastures is something that can be controlled on your livestock operation, which could considerably impact pasture health and productivity. This will mean another source of feed (e.g., hay) will have to be sourced-in order to delay the date of turnout.
To maintain healthy tame or native pasture, spring grazing should only begin after the three to 3.5 leaf stage has been attained by grasses. On native range, this stage usually connects with mid- to late-June. Tame grasses reach this stage much earlier. Fertilizing tame forage in the early spring has been found to stimulate early growth, resulting in a greater amount of forage early in the growing season.
Starting grazing at the right time is desirable from a forage productivity standpoint. Grazing too early can reduce forage production significantly for the remainder of the growing season. As a rule of thumb, a one-day delay in spring grazing can add three days of grazing in the fall. Since grazing is the cheapest way to feed a cow, it makes economic sense for producers to do things that will increase the forage production of their land.
If you cannot delay grazing on all pastures, then alternate the pastures or paddocks grazed first each spring (i.e., start grazing in a different paddock each year). Allowing the early-grazed pasture a longer rest period after grazing will also help it recover quicker.
In summary, the date of turnout in the spring is one factor that can influence both short- and long-term pasture productivity and, therefore, economic viability.