There are many factors that may determine when you turn livestock onto pasture this spring. It may be when the pasture is ready, after calving, or when your stored feeds are used up. Most are aiming for the timing to be when the pasture is ready. If it has to be earlier than that, we gave some tips in the previous post of how to manage pastures early. Now, let’s look at how to know when pastures are ready to be grazed:
Turning livestock out when the grass is ready is important to the longevity and productivity of your stand. The goal height for grass will vary from farm to farm, but a rule of thumb in a perfect world is 10-16 inches. Another option for spring grazing would be preparing the fall before and stockpiling some forages to let livestock on in the spring. A pasture stick is a great tool to judge the height and density of your pastures in the spring. Once your pasture is ready, you are able to begin rotation grazing.
There are many benefits to waiting until the pastures have grown enough to begin grazing. First is the forage quality. More developed pastures are going to have grasses that have higher fiber content and lower protein (see images below). This provides better nutritional value to the livestock as more digestible protein holds the forage in the rumen longer providing higher utilization of your valuable pasture forage.
Grazing taller grasses also contributes to the overall tonnage of pastures in the spring as well as throughout the season:
Another common concern in spring grazing is how wet pastures can be. Even though it will vary from year to year, giving the pastures time to grow and dry out a little more will benefit the health of the stand. Turning cattle into a taller, drier pasture will reduce the pugging and tearing up of the stand as well as erosion that can occur on a pasture grazed too early.
We know every year is different, and weather conditions can be a major challenge, but using some of these guidelines can greatly improve your pasture utilization this spring.
As pastures begin to green up this spring, it is tempting to want to turn livestock out right away. Depending on the situation, you may have to, but here are some reasons to try not to:
Early Growth Suppressed
Early spring growth on pastures is pulling directly from the root reserves that those plants have saved all winter. That reserve is not endless and the new growth has to start working as quickly as it can to photosynthesis and provide energy. If young plants are grazed too early, they are forced to pull only from the reserves again. When those run out, and there is not enough above ground growth to photosynthesize, the pasture stand can be severely damaged. The suppression of this early growth may be detrimental enough to the stand that it often pays off to use stored forages longer to protect the full season production of the pastures.
This time of year is also a common time for pastures to be at one of their wettest points of the season. As snow melts and frost thaws, pastures can be very saturated. Putting animal traffic over this ground can cause excessive pugging and tearing up of pastures. This puts extra stress on the developing plants and can cause damage that cannot be overcome. This is especially damaging to grass species that are tillering or clump-type grasses as they do not have extensive rhizome systems that can allow them to bounce back.
The forage that livestock would receive from early growth of a pasture is going to be high protein and low fiber, which is not ideal. The forage will not hold in the rumen for very long and you probably do not want to stand behind them…
If you have to graze early, there are a few things that can help some of these problems. First, keep stock density low to minimize overgrazing of the young plants. This will also help with the physical damage to the pasture. Also, be sure to keep dry hay available to increase the overall dry matter content of the forage. This allows the feed to be held in the rumen longer and better utilized.
Over time, the need to renovate pastures is inevitable. The question is, how do you know when a pasture needs renovated? Here are a few things to consider...
This point is simple to figure out: Do your pastures meet the needs (quality and tonnage) of what you are feeding? If the answer is “no”, then you need to renovate in some way. Maybe you had a beef cattle pasture that now needs to provide forage for dairy cattle. Or a set stock pasture that is now going to be rotationally grazed. Or maybe you bought 60 more cows! All of those situations change what you need in your pasture.
The stand count of your grass or mixed pasture is important to its productivity in terms of yield and forage quality. As your stand of desirable species is diminished, Mother Nature fills in the blank spots. Generally, she does this with species that are undesirable in a pasture (weeds). This is why keeping an eye on the density of your stand is important to keep it fully stocked with high quality forages. We recommend some form of renovating when your density is reaching 60% or lower coverage on a square foot basis.
Some pastures can remain dense, but just be slow producing overall. If your dry matter tonnage is getting below 200# per inch, then we would recommend some form of renovating. A pasture stick can be used to get that measurement.
First, slide the stick close to the ground and count the dots that are visible through the forage:
Next, use the chart on the other end of the stick to determine estimated dry matter in pounds per inch:
Maybe your stand has good density and is productive enough, but it has evolved into a single species or just a few species taking over. In this situation, we would recommend focusing on increasing your diversity if you are able. Rotational grazing and adequate rest periods allow for a pasture to maintain a diverse blend of grasses, legumes, and forbs. This can be done by interseeding additional species.
We are into the Pre-Plant, Cool Season cover crop window! This means there is an array of cool season options that can be planted. In our previous post about this seeding window, we focussed on only cover crop use, but what about planting a forage right now?
Cool season crops planted this spring can serve as excellent forage options for grazing or even mechanical harvest. Looking at our Forage Max blend as an example:
This is a cool season forage mix that we often recommend this time of year. This is a versatile blend that can be grazed or harvested as baleage. The oats and barley provide excellent digestible grasses while the legumes and brassicas contribute protein to the feed. In favorable spring conditions, this mix can be up and ready to graze in 45-60 days by many classes of livestock.
Forage Max is just an example of what can be seeded this time of year. Many other cool season species could be added in a mix such as clovers or faba beans if you have equipment that can handle various seed sizes.
If the goal of your operation is to have annuals to graze all summer, this cool season is a great place to start. As we get into summer and this cool season mix reaches the end of its run, your warm season mix (planted when soils are 60 degrees and rising) could be ready to switch livestock on to. Additional warm season blends could be planted on the area that had your cool season forage. This method takes some planning ahead, but can mean your livestock have access to quality annuals all summer long. These can also be great areas for livestock to graze in order to give your pastures adequate rest, which we know is important!
Last fall (or maybe over the winter) you seeded cereal rye and now you are wondering “Is it working?” Like we’ve said before, cereal rye has many purposes, and many definitions of “working.” Whether your cereal rye is just a cover crop or planted for forage or grain, the main goal at this point in the spring is making sure your cereal rye is getting up and going. There are a few things to check on:
Overall Green Up:
By now, any fields that you have seeded cereal rye on should be as green as your lawn. This means you have a well established stand. A dense stand is important for the cereal rye to serve as a place to calve on, a future forage crop, and as a cover crop. If it is green, it is capturing sunlight and working for you to feed your soil biology. This leads to the next checkpoint…
Pictured below is a healthy cereal rye plant that was dug up on April 7th. What we are checking for here is, first, a full root system and, second, your soil's biological activity. How can we see the activity of those tiny microbes? The layer of soil that is sticking to these roots is an excellent visual of that. These roots are sending out exudates that are causing that soil to stick to the roots and also feeding the biology. That is all good news!
Another thing to look for in your cereal rye is tillering. These tillers are very important if this cereal rye is going to be a forage for livestock or be taken for grain. The two tillers circled below are what is going to add to your overall tonnage as well as ability to produce grain with more leaf area for photosynthesis.
Written by Prairie Creek Seed’s Karl Dallefeld for the Stockman Grass Farmer in 2017.
Legumes are an important part of the diversity of any pasture or cover crop and they bring far more to the table than simply nitrogen credits. I have observed many situations where the same amount of synthetic nitrogen was applied to both straight grasses and grass/clover blends. The rates were high enough that the grass should have been dark green. One example was a show plot for a seed company and the grass needed to be a deep green. Where the clovers and the grasses were combined, the grasses were not only a deeper green, they were also less susceptible to rust and other leaf diseases.
The above example may sound obvious to some; however, let’s ask ourselves an honest question – how much diversity exists in the pastures across the nation? As I have stated many times, the more diversity a pasture has, the better the forage quality and the longer the quality holds. The benefits of legumes beyond nitrogen credits are building healthy populations of below ground soil life. This in turn helps restructure soils so that roots can penetrate deeper. Deeper roots mean more mineral uptake and better tolerance to dry conditions. The symbiotic relationship between the different plants creates an overall improvement in soil life and structure.
Healthy plants are also less susceptible to disease and are more palatable. Better quality forages and more palatability generally lead to healthier livestock that milk better or have a better rate of gain. These principles are also applicable worldwide. Diversity in our pastures and on our farm and ranch fields makes a real difference here and across the globe. If you don’t have legumes or the numbers are limited on your pastures or other areas, you should look at ways to get them established on your farm or ranch. The good news is, regardless of your location, there are ways to increase and reintroduce or regenerate clovers onto your fields and pastures. With solid management and continued stewardship, we can improve the vitality of plant populations across the board.
The spectrum of legumes runs from annuals to long-lived perennials. Making a decision on what to seed will depend on what you are trying to achieve, timing, and your environment. Because of the vast differences across this country and even local micro-climates, I hesitate to give off-the-cuff recommendations. I would suggest that a producer seek out sources of information that can give ideas and a feel for what works in the area you live. Old wisdom for me is the first stop. Historical publications regarding agriculture have a lot of good information and is a way to see what was native to your particular area. Grasses ad Grassland Farming and Native Plants of North America are two examples of reference books. Both were printed before 1965.
I will seed a diverse blend of clovers and legumes that make sense, but my overall goal is that through grazing management, the native species of plants will start popping up to further enhance the pasture. As long as the new arrivals are desirable, I know that I am on the right track for a healthier pasture or grassland. Great grazers in the local area would be another resource to visit with and, more importantly, observe what is happening in your pastures. Good seedsmen and women can tell you when and how the individual plants function. Read, visit, and observe – these things will help in making sound decisions on what to plant or reestablish.
When seeding into existing pastures, I would recommend a mix of both annual and perennial legumes. Timing will be important depending on what part of the country you are in. In the south, you may fall seed or start with warm-season annuals in the spring and then over-seed in the cool-season legumes in the fall. In the North, a spring seeding of cool-season annuals and perennials can be effective. We will generally plant a mix of red clover, white (ladino) clover, birdsfoot trefoil, alsike clover, crimson clover, berseem clover, balansa clover, and even a bit of alfalfa. This gives us a good jumpstart on diversity and is a balance of annual-to-perennial plants. In addition, we like to add plantain, chicory, little burnet, and a touch of milkvetch. This is a general recommendation for the Upper Midwest. In different parts of the country, the names will change; however, the principles remain the same.
In damaged or diminished pastures, we try to seed both cool-season and warm-season annuals. This will include sorghums, millets, oats, barley, and a combination of cowpeas, forage peas, and a brassica. The reasoning for this is to introduce annuals to stimulate the soil biology and help the establishment of our perennial plants. When drilling this combination into an established pasture, the plants may not express themselves and look impressive; however, the improvements to the soil will show up down the road. Most pastures that I have observed are not always nitrogen deprived; instead, they are generally deprived of air, water, and life. If the soils are compacted or the air and water are compressed out of the soil, the biology can’t thrive. The annual plants will be more aggressive in feeding the biology and will also try to root deeper, helping to get air and water into balance.
I would suggest keeping a running record of the plant species in your swards. Note all the plants that are present, including the forbs and even the undesirables. This needs to be an ongoing project as the pasture populations will change with the seasons and your management practices. Keeping an ongoing record of the plants in your pastures will allow you to monitor progress. Diversity counts in soils health, forage quality and animal health. Legumes and forbs are an integral part of an overall healthy sward.
Create a clean, clod-free seedbed before planting.
This seedbed should be firm to assist in control of planting depth. Even depth means even emergence and a full stand of alfalfa, and possibly a grass mix. Both pre-plant and post- establishment fertilizer should be applied for stand establishment and the health of the new seeding.
Side Note: Make sure to check for any possible herbicide carry-over, alfalfa seedlings can be sensitive.
Calibrate drill ahead of planting, checking seeding rate and planting depth.
Depending on the situation, seed alfalfa at 20 to 25 pounds of alfalfa per acre at a depth of ¼ inch. A lower rate would be appropriate when including a grass blend with the alfalfa (15-20 lbs alfalfa with 3-5 lbs of your choice of grass mix).
Use an appropriate nurse crop and harvest it in a timely fashion.
In a perfect world, we could plant forage oats at 90 pounds per acre with our new alfalfa seeding and get a huge forage cutting while having a thick stand of alfalfa underneath. But odds are you will end up with a stand like this:
We have to be realistic with our nurse crop yield goals and how much we want our alfalfa to be successful. Young seedlings are sensitive to competition and shading, so a rate of 30-50 pounds of forage or grain oats is more realistic. After all, a long-term, healthy alfalfa stand is the main goal.
Side Note: If no nurse crop is used to establish alfalfa, be prepared to use herbicide for weed control.
Once established, harvest the new seeding when appropriate and when conditions are good to prevent damage to the new stand.
Ah, yes. Your nurse crop is harvested and your alfalfa stand is up and thriving. Time to cut it as close to the ground as possible after a 3-inch rain!! Please don’t....
Those young plants are still working on establishing root reserves. Both wheel traffic and low cutting heights can be detrimental. Let the stand being to bloom and make sure ground conditions are adequate to not damage the new crowns of the plants. Cutting height should be at least 4+ inches to allow enough surface area for the plant to continue growing without having to drastically pull from its newly formed root reserves. Allow enough growth in the fall to provide cover and allow alfalfa to build adequate root reserves for winter survival.
Use these steps to set your alfalfa seeding up for success!
Planting spring cereals for forage is a common practice, but what about adding peas to the mix? Forage peas combined with forage oats, barley, or triticale at a total seeding rate of 80-100 lbs per acre in the spring can be a great way to improve your spring forage.
Forage Quality Improvements Harvested at Boot Stage –
Protein: Increase 2-5 percentage points, about 12%-20% CP
NDF (Undigestible portions): Reduced 4-9 percentage points, about 45%-60% NDF
These factors create a forage that is also more palatable and digestible when harvested in a timely manner
When should a mix like this be harvested?
This depends on the end user of the forage and your goals. If you want the highest quality forage to be fed to lactating dairy cows, the mix should be harvested when the small grain is in late boot stage. Feeding the mix to dry cows or beef cattle with the goal of higher tonnage is a different story. Maximum tonnage will be achieved when the mixture is harvested at soft dough stage, but quality will be lower at that time (RFQ of 100-110).
Planted as a Nurse Crop –
We have already answered some frequently asked questions about nurse crops, but there are some specifics about using peas and a small grain as a nurse crop. The rate for an oat pea mix should not exceed 40-60 pounds per acre. This ensures success of the alfalfa stand below and helps to avoid lodging. Remember, if your main goal is tonnage from the small grain and pea mixture, it may be better to seed that mix alone and not as a nurse crop.
Other Benefits of Peas and Small Grains?
Including a small grain and oat mix in your rotation is a great way to increase diversity on your farm. The small grain and peas themselves provide diverse root types to improve your soil and feed different biology. You can also imagine that the amount of above ground growth that the mix provides is mirrored in the below ground root systems that penetrate and condition your soils. Harvesting this mix for forage also provides as excellent window for a diverse warm season cover crop to be planted and accumulate growth before a frost.
Would you consider oats and peas in your farm’s rotation?
Understander, Dan. "Pea and Small Grain Mixtures." Focus on Forage, University of Wisconsin Board of Regents, vol. 5, no. 7, 2003.
A new pasture seeding is an important investment in any operation. That investment should be taken care of properly. Early management of a pasture stand can be what makes or breaks its success. We have said before that three reasons new seedings fail are seed bed prep, competition, and nature. Nature is out of our hands, but let’s say that you jumped the first hurdle of seed bed prep and the planting of your pasture mix went smoothly. The next obstacle is keeping competition down by managing the first weeks after planting, first harvest, and first spring of the new stand. Here are some guidelines for those critical “firsts”:
First Few Weeks - Grass seedlings do not tolerate shade, that is why competition in the first weeks after planting can be such a killer of new seedings. In the first few weeks after planting, it is important to monitor weed pressure and stay ahead of them. Depending on your operations preferences, clipping or spraying out weeds can keep them under control. Proper seed bed preparation often minimizes this issue because firm seed-to-soil contact ensures that seedlings get up and going and can stay ahead of the competition.
First Harvest - For the first harvest of a new seeding, whether it is grazing or mechanical, conditions must be dry to avoid pugging or causing ruts. Pasture species should be well established before this harvest, but can still be susceptible to physical damage from livestock or equipment. Grazing should be light and the cutting height of mechanical harvest must be 6-8 inches. New seedings will struggle when grazed too tightly or cut too short as this will limit the reserves they are able to pull from for regrowth.
First Spring - The first spring of a newly established stand is its time to shine. This will be a period of rapid growth of cool season grasses that will require timely cutting or grazing. This ensures the grasses remain vegetatively growing and encourages tillering. This grazing is also a chance to get plenty of light down to any lower-growing legumes or forbs that are waking up in the spring. If you are rotationally grazing, keep in mind that spring may be a time where you need to make hay from certain paddocks that get a head of your livestock.
We’ve told you before about our formula for interseeding into pastures, but what should you use when interseeding? That depends on what your goal for the stand is, but we have a few options…
Renovator – Throughout the life of a pasture stand, many variables can cause the stand to thin. If your goal is to add more grasses to a pasture, Renovator at 10-15 lbs per acre can be a great option. We have found that this blend of Soft-Leaf Tall Fescue, Meadow Fescue, Perennial Ryegrass, Orchardgrass, Timothy, and Italian Ryegrass works very well being interseeded into existing stands. The Italian Ryegrass will be your quick to establish portion and the rest of the blend will add persistent diversity with proper management.
Diversifier – At PCS, we are proponents of having legumes in your pastures link to karls. If you are looking to increase the legume percentag3e of your pastures, Diversifier is what you need. It does just what the name says, diversifies your stand with red clover, white clover, alfalfa, crimson clover, alsike clover, and birdsfoot trefoil. The recommended rate to interseed with would be 5-8 lbs per acre. This multi-species blend adds in a combination of fast establishing legumes along with more persistent varieties. This pairs very well with Renovator if you are needing to add grasses and legumes.
Freedom! MR Red Clover – This simple, mildew resistant legume addition can really boost a pasture. Freedom! MR is easy to establish and works well in existing stands. It is free of non-glandular hairs which make it more palatable and gives you the option of dry hay if pastures get ahead of your livestock.
When interseeding anything, remember the formula:
Graze/Cut → Drill in new species → Graze/Cut when established stand begins to fill in
This sequence gives new seedlings the maximum amount of light to establish and boost your pasture stand!