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Is your pasture ready for grazing?

By Terry Kowalchuk MSc. PAg., Provincial Specialist, Forage Crops

May 2020

Range readiness can be defined as the point at which soil and plant conditions on a seasonal pasture have progressed to where they can be safely grazed without damaging the soil or desirable plants. It represents the earliest date at which livestock turnout should occur.

Although pastures can be grazed prior to the onset of range readiness, the rest period following defoliation will likely be longer, and total forage production may be reduced. As a general rule of thumb, for every day that cattle are put out early in the spring you will lose three days of grazing later in the season.

Initiating grazing when plants are ready will result in increased animal gains through increased feed intake and efficiency, enhanced plant vigour, improved stand health, and maintenance of production.

The calendar date when range readiness occurs will differ from year to year, depending on available moisture and growing degree days. Temperature is the main factor influencing the growth rate of plants and growing degree days measure the accumulation of temperatures conducive to plant development. A prolonged cool spring like those experienced in 2019 and 2020 will delay the onset of growth. This can be exacerbated by cold open winters and drought.

Which forage species dominates in a stand will also have a large impact on when a pasture is ready. Different species of grass may vary in the stage of development that indicates range readiness. Crested wheatgrass is considered range ready at the three leaf stage, often coinciding with approximately six inches of growth. Meadow bromegrass is ready at the 3.5 leaf stage.

Different forage species arrive at their target developmental stage at different rates. For instance, crested wheatgrass will be at the 3 leaf stage after approximately 500 growing degrees, while needle-and-thread, a common key forage species in southern Saskatchewan rangelands, requires twice the growing degrees to reach the same developmental stage. Therefore, crested wheatgrass is an excellent source of pasture for early spring grazing and is often used to defer grazing until native plants are range ready. Table 1 provides a set of general  guidelines for the onset of grazing for a selection of forage species. Heights at the specified plant stage will vary from year to year, so take these as rules of thumb.

Species Begin Grazing Keep height within Leave as stubble in fall

Tall fescue

20 cm (8 in.) early boot

10-15 cm (4–6 in.)

12-14 cm (4-5 in.)

Orchardgrass

20 cm (8 in.) boot

10-15 cm (4–6 in.)

12-14 cm (4-5 in.)

Hybrid Bromegrass

20 cm (8 in.) early boot

Graze before fully headed

12-14 cm (4-5 in.)

Russian wild rye

10-13 cm (4-5 in.) vegetative

No limit

5 cm (2 in.) min.

Crested wheatgrass

13 cm (6 in.) vegetative

Do not allow heading

8-10 cm (3-4 in.)

Reed canary grass

15 cm (6 in.) vegetative

10-30 cm (4-12 in.)

10-15 cm (4-6 in.)

Smooth bromegrass

20 cm (8 in.) early boot

Above 8-10 cm (3-4 in.)

12-14 cm (4-5 in.)

Meadow bromegrass

25 cm (8-10 in.) vegetative

Above 8-10 cm (3-4 in.)

15 cm (6 in.)

Tall wheatgrass

13 cm (5 in.) vegetative

7 cm (3 in.) to fully headed

15 cm (6 in.)

Intermediate wheatgrass

20 cm (8 in.) early boot

10-15 cm (4–6 in.)

10 cm (4 in.)

Pubescent wheatgrass

20 cm (8 in.) early boot

10-15 cm (4–6 in.)

10 cm (4 in.)

Alfalfa with grass

30-45 cm (13-18 in.) in mid to late bud

10-15 cm (4–6 in.)

12-14 cm (4-5 in.)

Oats

25 cm (10 in.)

7-10 cm (3-4 in.) to heading

7-10 cm (3-4 in.)

 

Table 1: Grazing onset, stand height and stubble height for select forage species

Ideally grazing should take place when pasture plants are in the elongation stage of growth, before legumes flower and grasses produce seedheads. Grazing during this growth stage optimizes the nutritional quality of forage and total pasture yield, while leaving enough food stores in the roots for pasture plants to regrow.

In Saskatchewan, key introduced or tame forage species such as crested wheatgrass and meadow bromegrass with different growth rates and rates of readiness can be used in rotation with native rangeland to provide season-long grazing.

Table 2 provides guidelines for season of use for a selection of tame and native grasses.

Forage options for grazing by seasons
Table 2: Generalized grazing options for various forage types in Saskatchewan

Turning cattle out on native rangeland early in the spring can have long-term detrimental effects on the plant community. Wherever possible, grazing on rangelands should be deferred until the plants are range ready.

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