TECHNIQUES FOR EXTENDING THE GRAZING SEASON
John R. Cockrell
UW-Extension Grazing Specialist
Most livestock producers are aware that pasture harvested by the cow is cheaper than forage which is harvested, stored and then removed from storage and fed to the cow. Some studies show that pastured forage costs about 1 to 1½ cents per pound of dry matter (DM) in the cow with most of the manure applied back on the pasture. Stored forage costs about 4 to 5 cents per pound of DM plus the cost of storage, feeding and manure hauling. Unfortunately, most livestock producers in the Upper Midwest don’t understand the principles of good pasture management. Therefore, they are only able to utilize cheap pasture forage for a few months each year. Let’s look at some of the methods we can use to extend the grazing season.
In Southern Wisconsin, our typical pasture growing season consists of 5 months of rapid growth (May, June, July, August and September), 2 months of slow growth (April and October) and 5 months of no growth (November, December, January, February and March). We must understand that pasture growth rates can be greatly influenced by rainfall and temperature from year to year just like they are in New Zealand, Ireland and Australia. However, there are cow calf producers in Southwestern Wisconsin who regularly graze their cows 12 months out of the year. With a little cooperation from the weather, they will get most of the cows’ feed from pasture 7-8 months of the year and they get some of the cows’ feed requirements from pasture 4-5 months of the year. While rainfall, temperature and snow depth can greatly influence pasture productivity and/or availability, experienced graziers soon develop management techniques to reduce the impact on their livestock.
Some management practices used by experienced graziers to lengthen the grazing season are as follows:
Proper fertilization is essential for maximum pasture productivity. Well fertilized pastures will not only grow more DM per acre, but will also be higher in protein and energy and will be more palatable, which will improve DM intake. The end result is improved livestock performance.
While adequate fertilization will improve pasture productivity and utilization, over- fertilization is a waste of money and a very poor environmental practice. To determine pasture fertilizer needs, run plant tissue analysis every few years. Tissue analysis is superior to soil testing, because it tells you what is in the plant which is all that matters. Also, tissue sampling is the most accurate method to evaluate the availability of trace elements. Apply corrective fertilizer according to test recommendations. If you are not familiar with taking plant tissue samples, contact your local Extension Office for assistance.
I would recommend the application of 40 to 50 units of nitrogen fertilizer starting in early June and continuing after each grazing or mechanical harvest. Also, I would time the last application for about the middle of October. This will build a strong root system and promote early growth next spring.
The biggest mistake many farmers make is to delay nitrogen application until deficiency
symptoms show up (i.e. yellow grass). We then must get the nitrogen on the pasture, wait for rain, wait for the nitrogen to enter the plant through the roots and then wait for the plant to grow. This practice just wasted 4 to 6 weeks out of an already short growing season. High quality pasture is the cheapest feed source for your cows. Saving a few dollars on fertilizer could be very costly.
Also, you will find that well fertilized pastures are much more drought tolerant than low fertility pastures, therefore, extending the grazing season.
II. Subdividing Pastures
Proper pasture layout is essential for easy pasture management. I would suggest rather large paddocks which are zone fenced. For example, keep everything the same if possible, like south slopes fenced separately, fence north slopes separately, separate bottoms from sloping hillsides and ridge tops, etc. Large paddocks can be further subdivided with an electrical tape when necessary.
When pastures are ready to graze, the cattle should be given an area they can harvest in 12 hours to 3 days, depending on type of livestock and production goals. For example, many dairy graziers will move fresh cows to new grass after every milking, stockers may be moved in 1 to 2 days, and cow-calf graziers may give larger breaks for 3 days. Regardless of length of occupation, paddocks must be properly sized so that cows will clean up most of the available forage. This practice will assure vegetative regrowth and high quality forage availability in the next round. Pasture forage that is not grazed in previous rounds probably will not be grazed at all, and even if it is grazed, it will be low quality forage. After 5 days, grazed plants will begin to put out new shoots. If cattle are allowed to graze regrowth, this will result in less and less forage available as the grazing season progresses. One experienced grazier said, “You might just as well put herbicide on your pastures as to graze them for long durations.” This is the primary reason continuous grazed pastures are usually done by early to mid July.
III. Rest Periods
Properly subdivided and fertilized pastures allow for rapid growth and quick harvest. A proper rest period allows the root system to grow and recover from the previous grazing. Studies have shown that severe defoliation greatly reduces the plant’s root system. When severe defoliation is followed by a dry period, the results will be a forage deficit. On the
other hand, when no more than 50% to 60% of the plant is defoliated, there is little reduction in the size of the root system. Therefore, a good rule of thumb is to graze half and leave half. However, if we turn cattle in on 6 inch tall pastures, we would probably want to graze 4 inches and leave 2 inches since there is more DM in the bottom half than the top half of the plant.
Another good rule of thumb to follow is when pasture growth is slow, slow down the rotation. In other words, lengthen the rest period. To do this may require that you feed supplemental feed. But when pasture growth is rapid, you should speed up the rotation or have shorter rest periods. This sounds simple, but most new graziers do just the opposite for some reason.
In Ireland they call it building a feed wedge, in New Zealand it is called autumn saved pasture, and in the Upper Midwest we use the term stockpiled pasture. No matter what the practice is called, it is the nuts and bolts of pasture management which allows us to extend the grazing season into periods of slow and no pasture growth.
(a) Summer Stockpiling
First of all, it usually pays to carry some surplus pasture into our potentially hot and dry July-August period. This can be accomplished by keeping a fair amount of fresh grown pasture ahead of you and slowing down the rotation. If daily growth rates drop below daily cattle demand, use supplemental feed early on so you can keep grazing through the dry period. If the rains continue, the surplus will need to be harvested to keep pastures in a vegetative growth stage.
(b) Fall And Winter Stockpiling
Beginning around August 15th, we should divide the farm into thirds to accumulate surplus stockpiled pasture for late fall and winter grazing. The first 1/3 of the pastures will be grazed hard from late August through September and October. Pastures will need to be fertilized ahead of this period to ensure adequate growth as discussed earlier. During dry falls and until pastures become well established, you may need to feed supplemental forage and/or grain. The remaining 2/3 of the farm will be allowed to grow from late August through the end of October. We will then take 1/3 of the farm which contains the stockpiled forage and graze it during late fall and early winter. This will be very high quality pasture. Pasture grown in the fall doesn’t lose quality like it would in the spring. You will find that dry cows will fatten very rapidly on this forage. You will need to use electric tapes to ration out the feed supply to prevent cows from becoming overly fat and trampling the remaining pasture. Do Not feed grain except in cases of severe pasture shortages to non lactating cattle.
The remaining 1/3 of the stockpiled pasture will be reserved for mid to late winter feeding. To make this practice effective, you will need to know your farm. For example, learn where the slopes and ridges are that accumulate the least amount of snow. Save these areas for mid to late winter grazing. While you will need to feed supplemental feed during this period, you can greatly reduce labor requirements by feeding as much pasture as possible. Many graziers will leave wrapped bales in these areas for winter supplementation, therefore reducing the need to move feed in the winter.
Benefits Of Stockpiling
There are 2 primary benefits from stockpiling practices described above.
1. We are able to greatly reduce the use of stored feed during the late fall and winter. This practice not only saves money, but labor as well.
2. We stagger the spring green up so that pasture management becomes a little easier. The first new growth to appear will be in the 1/3 of the farm that was grazed in late winter and early spring. Don’t forget the fall fertilization practices mentioned earlier if you want early spring grazing. We probably get early green up in this area first, because the roots were able to collect stored carbohydrates all fall and were insulated by the top growth during the winter. When this top growth is removed in late winter or early spring, the plant is ready to grow.
The second area to green up a few weeks later will be the 1/3 that was grazed in the late fall and early winter. I suspect this occurs because the root has lots of stored carbohydrates, but lacked insulation from the top growth all winter.
The last area to green up will be the 1/3 of the farm that was grazed hard during late summer and early fall. These roots were not allowed to store carbohydrates and had no insulation. This is primarily why people who over graze their farm all fall rarely have enough pasture to fully feed their cows before mid May to early June. If this is followed by a hot, dry period in July or August, we can see that these farmers will have a very short grazing season. They will probably tell the world that grazing doesn’t work in the Upper Midwest. Actually, in their case, they are absolutely correct.
V. Other Practices
Some graziers will plant a few acres of corn to be left standing in the field all winter. The corn will stand up through the snow and can be utilized during periods of heavy snowfall. This is a very low cost, low labor feeding system. With a little thought, I am sure you can develop other low cost, low labor feeding systems that will work on your farm. Remember, grazed forage costs 1½ cents per pound of DM and is very low labor while stored feed will cost 4-5 cents per pound of DM and has very high labor requirements. Therefore, thinking and planning can be very profitable.
While many of the practices described above sound fairly simple, it takes experience and practice to implement them successfully. As we all know, there can be some very brutal winters in the Upper Midwest from time to time and you will always need to have a backup plan in place. This could mean buying feed or wintering cows off the farm, but you definitely must have a plan.
VII. In Conclusion
Feeding stored feed to cattle is very costly and labor intense. However, the system is fairly well understood and for most farmers is a no-brainer. On the other hand, grazing can be very low cost and low labor, but it is very management intense. Much of the time you used to spend doing manual tasks will be spent thinking. You will save money and/or increase profits only if you make the correct decisions and implement the practices successfully into your management. To be a successful grazier, you must enjoy the challenge. If you don’t enjoy the challenge of grazing, your chances for success will be very slim.
To increase your chances for success I would suggest graziers with similar goals and interests (i.e. cow-calf, stocker, or dairy graziers) form discussion groups and share information. Remember as graziers you are the primary source of new information available today. There are very few agribusinesses that are willing to spend time and/or money to show you how to reduce cost. I learned the information presented in this paper from farmers and hope that you can use it to improve the profitability of your grazing business.