Spring Pasture Management Tips
There are a number of things that you can put in place now to give improved pasture yields throughout the coming season.
Start by frost seeding legumes into your grass pastures during March or early April. Legumes provide high quality forage for your livestock and also provide a bonus in extra nitrogen that the grass plants will use for optimum growth. For maximum production there should be 40-50% legume in a pasture. Broadcasting several pounds of seed in late February to early April, depending on snow depth and frost is one way of increasing the legume content of a pasture. The clovers (white and red) and trefoil are the preferred legumes to use for frost seeding. Although alfalfa makes an excellent pasture legume it does not establish very well in a frost seeding system. The grass species generally do not give satisfactory results in a frost seeding situation.
Plan a rotational grazing system that allows the livestock to be moved from a pasture before the forage is too short. A residual pasture height of 3-4 inches is ideal. This leaves enough grass for rapid re-growth. Keep in mind that the root system tends to be about the same size as the above ground plant. If you take the grass down very short there will be a decrease in the size of the root system that will support re-growth.
A soil test should be done every 3-5 years on pasture fields and additional phosphorous and potassium added if required. The phosphorous and potassium levels should be in the medium range, if they are low there will not be enough soil nutrition to support optimum plant growth. A soil test will also indicate the soil pH, if it is low then apply lime as recommended by the soil test. The other fertility component is nitrogen. If there is less that 35-40% legume in the pasture there will be a response to additional nitrogen.
Put livestock into a pasture before the grass is too tall. Ideally the grass should be 10-14 inches tall when the cattle are moved in. This will give the optimum length of forage for cattle to physically eat while maintaining a balance of yield and quality. For the first rotation through your pastures in the spring it will be necessary to start before the grass has reached this height. Then rotate quickly from pasture to pasture to keep up with the rapid growth. Subsequent rotations however should follow the above guidelines
Plants start to re-grow about 5 days after being harvested. Livestock will prefer the new growth and will eat it as it appears which will greatly increase the recovery time before the next grazing. For maximum forage utilization livestock should be moved every 1-2 days, but as a maximum every 5 days.
Train your livestock to electric fence. If livestock respect an electric fence they will be much easier to manage and pastures can be sized to the animal needs with single wire temporary fence. An effective electric fence should give the animal a "memorable experience" so they know not to touch it again. A good energizer that is properly grounded, sized to the length of fence that needs to be charged and with all connections making good contact should provide this "experience".
Expect a shortage of feed in mid to late summer and then plan how you are going to fill this shortage. Do you have second/third cut hay fields that can be grazed? Should you plant some annual forage such as sorghum-sudan, late seeded cereals, turnips, or grazing corn? Is there a supply of other forage such as sweet corn waste available in your area at an effective price? Should you make hay/baleage with some of the excess early pasture growth? The things that will work on your farm will be different than the next person's, whether they live down the road or across the province.
Each farm needs to look at what will work for their situation.
Keep a pasture log this season where you can record the dates that animals entered and left each paddock, how many animals were involved and an estimate of the amount of forage present in the field. Also note any weather conditions. Starting the grazing season with a plan will allow you to make the necessary management decisions and adjustments during the grazing season to realize the optimum potential of your pastures.
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