Establishing a paddock system might be the last thing on a farmer’s mind as they clear snow from the driveway, but spring is just a few weeks away.
Before buying seed or fencing, producers need to devise a specific plan that includes paddock size, available acres and stocking rates.
“Look at your field map and set goals,” says Denise Schwab, Extension beef specialist with Iowa State University based in Vinton, Iowa. “How often are you willing to rotate paddocks? How many cows do you have? Are you willing to wait to add more to establish the paddocks?”
She says water might be the biggest challenge when setting up paddocks. Ponds, creeks and wells are all potential water sources.
Schwab adds producers may be eligible for some cost-share money to help establish paddocks.
Testing the soil and checking on existing forage should come before any fencing, says Rebecca Vittetoe, ISU Extension agronomist in Washington. It provides an opportunity to correct any sort of imbalances in the pasture, she says.
Vittetoe says most pastures in the Midwest are predominantly cool season, though some producers may establish warm season grasses in at least one paddock to help with summer grazing.
She says frost seeding may be used to help introduce legumes into a pasture. The best time for this is when the ground is still frozen, yet the snow has melted. Red clover is a good options for frost seeding.
Late March through the first of May is usually a good time to interseed using a no-till drill.
“The weather is obviously going to dictate what you can do,” Vittetoe says.
She says if producers are going to spray for thistles or other weeds, it is best to do that prior to trying to establish legumes in the pasture.
Schwab says a general rule of thumb when it comes to stocking rates is 2 acres per cow.
“Your stocking rate is generally related to your forage production,” she says. Certain soil types will likely produce more forage.
If interseeding is used, keep cows off the new paddocks until grass is 4 to 6 inches high, although she says bluegrass paddocks could be grazed at 2 inches of height.
She says producers may also use an approach that involves phasing in a smaller number of paddocks over time. For example, two paddocks in a five-paddock system could be grazed the first year, with two more the following year and the fifth paddock in the third year.
Haying an existing pasture could also benefit new seeding, Schwab says.
“You need to remove some of the grass to allow the sun to get to the new seedlings,” she says, adding legumes introduced into existing pasture tend to grow better than any new grasses in the paddock.