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Don’t jump the gun turning cattle out to graze
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Don’t jump the gun turning cattle out to graze

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As producers watch their roughage supply dwindle fast due to the harsh winter weather, they are anxiously waiting for green grass and the opportunity to move the cattle to pasture. But NDSU Extension livestock environmental stewardship specialist Miranda Meehan stressed there are two things producers need to keep in mind before they move the cattle to pasture:

  • Heavy snow cover on the pasture right now doesn’t guarantee a plentiful grass supply
  • Grazing too early can greatly reduce forage yields this upcoming grazing season

Meehan touched on these two points during a recent NDSU Extension webinar that dealt with cold-weather cattle management tips. Her portion of the webinar dealt with managing spring turnout and grazing.

Heavy snow cover doesn’t necessarily translate into heavy grass production – There is heavy snow cover on much of the pasture and rangeland right now and it contains a lot of moisture, but Meehan said a large portion of that snow will runoff as it melts and will refill the stock dams and surface water areas. However, most of that snow runoff will not be a principle source of moisture for forage production this year.

“Eighty percent of forage production in North Dakota comes from precipitation received in May and June,” she said. “So, don’t make your grazing management decisions based on the snow we have available right now.”

When to start grazing a stand of grass – Many producers use a calendar date when deciding when to start grazing their pastures or grasslands, Meehan noted. However, a better way is to determine grazing readiness based on plant development.

The simplest way is to go out in the future grazing area and look at plant development. For species such as crested wheat grass and bromegrass it would be the 3-leaf stage and for the native species it would be the 3½-leaf stage, she explained.

“It is important that we don’t start grazing our grasses too early,” Meehan said. “Grazing too early can stress those plants and actually result in an up to 60 percent decrease in forage production for the grazing season.”

In a normal spring the calendar dates that coincide with the correct grass maturity are:

  • Crested wheat grasses in early May
  • Bromegrass species in mid-May
  • Intermediate wheat grasses in late May
  • Native pastures, dominated by cool season species, typically aren’t ready until early June

She stressed that there is a wide degree of variability when using a calendar method of determining turn out for grazing. Location of the pasture within the state can sometimes means a difference of up to two weeks when certain species are available for grazing and times can vary from one year to the next.

“Just because you were able to start grazing on a certain date last year doesn’t mean those species will be available to graze this year on that date,” she said. “I expect we will have a delay in our grazing readiness this year because of all of the snow, when our plants start growing and photosynthesizing and the ground is going to take longer to warm up. How long that delay is going to be, I can’t say right now.”

Finally, she mentioned a few strategies that can be employed if a producer finds it necessary to move the herd to pasture before the grass is ready:

  • Supplement on pasture
  • Graze domesticated grass pastures first – not native grassland pastures
  • Utilize winter annuals such as rye, winter wheat or triticale for spring grazing
  • Graze native pastures invaded by Kentucky bluegrass
  • Graze native pastures dominated by cool season grasses

Those needing assistance setting up a spring grazing program can contact their local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the local NDSU county Extension office or Meehan directly at 701-231-7683 or by email at

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