Spring grazing cattle on green pasture

Forage experts say producers may want to take extra care with pastures this spring after last year’s challenging grazing conditions. 

After an extreme forage shortage last year and over the winter, green and growing pastures are a welcome sight for livestock producers.

“Pastures are starting to green up now,” said Valerie Tate, University of Missouri Extension agronomist. “We had some warmer temperatures in early April and plenty of moisture.”

Tate, who is based in Linn County in north central Missouri, said there are concerns as spring grazing gets underway for pastures trying to rebound from overgrazing.

“I’m really concerned about our pastures,” she said. “A lot of our pastures were grazed really short. It’s important for cattlemen to give that grass time to grow.”

Producers can give pastures time to get going by managing how much they graze them.

“It’s important that they consider the take-half, leave-half approach when grazing pastures,” Tate said.

Overgrazing hurts pastures’ growth potential, said Denise Schwab, beef specialist with Iowa State University Extension.

“For the majority of our tall cool-season grasses, we really don’t want to graze them below 4 inches, give or take — 4 or 5 inches,” she said.

Schwab said this keeps new green leaves on grass, which is key for photosynthesis and producing sugar, which leads to quicker growth.

“A lot of our pastures last fall we grazed probably lower and shorter than we normally would,” she said. “… The gas tank is half full, and we need to fill that tank back up.”

Tate said producer management can increase the productivity of the grass.

“If they can implement a management-intensive grazing system, they can increase the utilization of grass,” she said.

As for hay, Tate said the ideal time to cut hay is the boot stage, just before the seed head emerges.

“Our quality is still very high then,” she said.

Producers are hoping for a big spring of grass growth. Tate said cool-season grass grows best when the temperature reaches the 65- to 75-degrees range. Looking ahead, Tate said it could be a good year to consider summer annuals like sorghum sudangrass and pearl millet.

“It may be the year to plant some summer annuals, just to help alleviate the forage shortage,” she said.

The situation of coming off a forage shortage means producers might also want to consider applying nitrogen for the spring, Schwab said. Most years there is already plenty of spring grass growth — often more than producers need — but this year Schwab said it could be good to “kind of kick start that early spring grass growth.”

“Normally we have more than adequate early season grass growth, so we don’t need to fertilize early, but this year may be the exception, and adding 60-80 pounds of nitrogen to grass pastures will help get more early forage growth, allowing the most damaged paddocks additional time to recover before grazing,” Schwab said.

She added that producers should also be cautious about grass tetany in the spring, especially if they are putting on some nitrogen, and they can feed cattle high magnesium mineral to offset the risk.

It’s also a good idea to scout pastures to determine the best approach to take, Schwab said.

“I think part of it is to see what do we have for grasses and also what do we have for density?” she said.

Producers should examine how the stands look, how dense the grass is, and whether there was any winter kill.

Schwab said rotational grazing can give grass a break as it needs it.

“Really, the bottom line, the benefit to rotational grazing is rest for the grass,” she said.

A rotation of six paddocks works well for many producers, Schwab said, resulting in moving cattle every five or six days.

“That gives it a good month of rest before it gets grazed again,” she said.

Producers can adjust their rotation schedule and plans as conditions change.

“The one thing with rotational grazing, it’s not a textbook system,” Schwab said. “It’s got to be: Read the grass.”

This could mean having a sacrifice paddock to graze down if needed, or giving certain pastures or areas more rest and time off, Schwab said.

Ben Herrold is Missouri field editor, writing for Missouri Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.