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Spring Grazing

By Cassandra Schroeder, AAg, Range Management Extension Specialist, Kindersley

April 2020

Spring is an important time for the perennial grasses that dominate our pastures. After surviving the winter, grasses initiate new growth using their limited energy reserves. Initial photosynthesis rates are not usually enough to meet demands of the rapidly growing leaves so the grass continues to draw from energy reserves. If those first leaves are grazed off before energy reserves can be replenished, the grass may not have enough energy to regrow. Even when the grass is strong enough to regrow, it usually regrows slower. Good grazing management ensures that grasses have the resources they need to be productive throughout the season.

Grasses, especially native prairie grasses, are sensitive to early spring grazing. Delaying the start of grazing can improve future productivity and helps maintain desirable species in the stand. Once the first few leaves are fully expanded photosynthesis can generally meet plant demands and contribute to energy reserves. It is usually safe to start grazing once grasses have reached the 3 to 4 leaf stage. However, it is not always possible to defer grazing on all paddocks until this stage.

When early turn out is part of your grazing plan, it is especially important to have a good rotation that allows for plant recovery. Grasses that have been well rested will have greater energy reserves allowing them to better cope with spring grazing. A deferred rotation grazing system is desirable so that no one field is grazed first every year. Ideally deferred grazing systems have at least three fields allowing the field grazed in the fall to be rested in the spring, and the field grazed in the spring to be rested for more than a full year. This reduces the stress of spring grazing each year and the selection pressure against early growing plants. A deferred rotation can support spring grazing by allowing for plant recovery.

One of the key principles of good range management is to allow for effective rest periods. Effective rest means giving pastures a break from grazing when growing conditions are favorable. Resting fields in winter or in late summer drought periods does not constitute effective rest. Rest periods allow the grass to photosynthesize beyond its recovery and maintenance requirements. This means extra energy can be used for root growth, plant reproduction, and be stored for times when photosynthesis cannot occur. Without adequate rest, grass may not be able to survive the winter and grow back next year. Rest is simply essential to maintaining a productive grazing system.

Well planned grazing is beneficial to grasslands and can even increase pasture productivity, but poor grazing management can lead to decreased productivity. Delaying the start of grazing, implementing deferred rotations and allowing for effective rest are a few strategies that can improve grazing management. Grazing management strategies should be planned over multiple years not just for one season. Pastures are perennial systems so you do not actually get fresh new plants each spring – you get the ones you took care of last year. Take care of them well so that they will be productive for years to come.

Example of a basic deferred rotation grazing system:

 

Spring

Summer

Fall

Year 1

Field A

Field B

Field C

Year 2

Field B

Field C

Field A

Year 3

Field C

Field A

Field B

The field grazed in the spring has more than a full seasons rest to allow for recovery.
Field A would be grazed in the spring again in year 4.

 

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