How best to graze springtime pastures
Springtime is arriving or just around the corner. If your landscape and production goal is to grow as much forage as possible this upcoming year, the following is a list of suggestions that may help.
To paraphrase Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms: “I don’t want my pastures in the baby grass grow stage or the senior citizen vegetation growth; instead I want teenage grass all over our farm. We all know that teens grow fast and furious.”
Last year we had a chance to visit Joel’s farm located in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. At that time he was on daily moves, made handy by poly-wire fencing. He followed each move with his “Egg Mobile” where a few hundred laying hens spread his manure around and remove the bugs.
Teens are typically in fast growth stage most of the time. This gives us a clue on what to do. Graze fast during the fast growth stage. Don’t stay too long in any one pasture when plants are first starting to grow. You don’t want to hold them in baby growth.
Watch and actually measure your grass growth. You can do this be placing a wire flag next to a bitten-off grass plant. Make a couple of 90 degree bends in the wire at the height of the bitten-off grass plant. Come back a few days or a week later and note how much the plant has grown.
This is also a great technique to see when it’s safe to re-graze a pasture. If the bitten-off plant has completed enough re-growth to catch up with a non-grazed plant, that pasture is ready to be grazed again. I know that this changes often during drought years.
One year a past client of mine called me in mid-August and commented after a nice three-inch rainfall that all of his plants entered back into the teenage fast growth stage. He asked me whether he should change his pasture rotation schedule? Yep, I said, speed up the rotation. In other words, grass growth determines how many days to stay in a pasture.
A quick rule of thumb is: move livestock quickly during fast plant growth, but during slow plant growth the animals can stay longer. Why? Because you don’t want to bite off fresh re-growth. Second bites on fresh re-growth shrink the root systems of many important rangeland grass species. This is something I studied intensively for three years while completing my Master’s Degree in Rangeland Science at Montana State University, Bozeman.
Yes, this requires close observation, yet if you use some of these tips you’ll learn how to grow more grass that maximizes plant root growth. You’re actually building healthier soils by keeping your plants in the teenage stage—increased volume. And don’t forget to keep the soils covered as much as you can by leaving some growth behind when you move the cows. Direct sunlight shining on bare soils kills microorganisms that help build and add fertility to your soils.
When your kids hit the teenage years, they need more attention, more quality food and plenty of rest just like your plants. Remember whether it’s a kid or plant, a good yield is right around the corner. — Wayne Burleson
Wayne Burleson is a partially retired land management consultant and a passionate international food gardener. You can visit with Wayne at rutbuster7@ gmail.com