Grazing Pastures Too Early
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.