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Patience during spring grazing transition pays off throughout pasture season

By Kevin Mahalko

We are all motivated to have a successful transition to the grazing season after seeing the great grazing presentations at the 2020 MOSES Organic Farming Conference. Witnessing the green pasture images in February in venues like MOSES always inspires grazing advocates to prepare for spring renewal. A lot of management is required to make a successful spring grazing transition, which is the foundation of good pasture management throughout the year—good management now can make or break the entire season.

In the early part of March, we were mostly doing winter management: feeding livestock stored feed while there’s still plenty of snow on the ground that’s gradually thawing. For the winter months, we had set up feeding areas based on several factors important for livestock health, and the need to fertilize fields. Feeding of hay in several forms is the most common method of feeding in outwintering systems. Dry hay bales are often preplaced in the fall or throughout winter to prevent the need to run feeding equipment in harsh weather. Fence is set up in various patterns and livestock is moved to new bales by moving fence and advancing feeders. Wetter forage like baleage can be fed in hay rings or wagons in the field.

Bales can be made in various ways by different styles of balers. We farmers have endless arguments on the merits of each style or equipment, but usually the goal is to pack as much hay in a bale as equipment can easily carry and still maintain feed-out so livestock can get their dry-matter intake needs, while preserving hay from waste and providing some balance of bedding in the process.

I personally feed mostly large, square-bale baleage of good RFV (relative feed value) at 30-40% moisture, which provides a lot of dry-matter intake and little waste while offering easy-to-handle bales from the harvest forward.
Wrapping hay to conserve plastic per ton of feed is also a good idea. I now feed mostly in feeder wagons that can be pulled from paddock to paddock to target feeding areas where pasture might be stockpiled, fertility is needed, and it’s convenient to feed based on weather, etc. The fences are in place to access this outwintered area and laneways are used to move livestock in the winter.

Making a gradual transition to green pastures in spring gives plants the chance to build root and energy reserves, and provides soils the time to come fully alive to function properly throughout the season. Photo by MOSES staff.

Mud season in spring is our biggest challenge. When the thaw starts, we typically have planned to freeze down emergency paddocks to give them extra time to thaw. We preplace bales and move cattle to various sacrifice paddocks as needed depending on how much livestock pressure is being put on paddocks.

It is critical to move equipment and bales at times when things have frozen to limit damage and compaction. A general rule is to limit hoof and equipment impact to plow depth at maximum or it will take a serious effort to repair soils. We usually pump water to reserve tanks using maple sap line hose to keep cattle from churning up lanes to get to water. If damage is limited, light tillage can easily prep a seedbed and provide a great opportunity to plant new pasture forage stands.

Some periods get very muddy and force graziers to use various emergency housing or feeding pads. These can range from raised earthen mounds to freestall barns. Brad Heins with the University of Minnesota’s West Central Research & Outreach Center in Morris has extensive research on outwintering dairy herds in cold northern Minnesota and can provide some good research data on outwintering. (See wcroc.cfans.umn.edu/research-programs/dairy.)

Now that we are getting into the potential first green grass of the year, I strongly urge graziers to be patient and wait to turn out cattle on pasture until conditions are “right.” It is better to utilize sacrifice paddocks than to turn livestock out on wet paddocks with very light forage. This common practice of eating the first green is what dooms a lot of farms to poor pasture production. We must balance the needs of livestock, plants, and soil. If the soil is too wet, compaction or structural damage will occur to both soil and plants. If plants are grazed too aggressively too early, they will never grow proper leaf mass or root mass.

Livestock need to transition properly to pasture so their systems can adapt to the typically high forage quality of early growth. For many years, I have observed that holding the cows back and transitioning gradually with feed gives the cows time to adapt, allows plants the opportunity to build root and energy reserves, and provides soils the time to come fully alive and function properly throughout the season. A week’s worth of patience in the spring can usually net rewards throughout the entire rest of the season and keep pastures growing until the snow flies once more.

The University of Missouri’s Grazing Wedge is a useful tool in planning pasture production in spring. The tool visually represents the quantity of forage dry matter available per acre or hectare at a single point in time. When used over time, it calculates pasture growth rates and cumulative forage production in the grazing system. Measuring and observation are very important. If grass gets ahead, it can be mowed and brought back in rotation.

There are several ways to improve existing pastures in the spring. Various seeding strategies, such as frost seeding, hand seeding, drill and no-till drill seeding, as well as placement of bales, can all affect development of pasture and diversity. Sacrifice paddocks may need to be fully reseeded.

There are many exciting new forage options to plant for grazing, ranging from cover crops to diverse permanent pasture varieties. Brian Pillsbury recommended accessing the NRCS soils data links and the Forage Suitability databases to find suggestions for forage plants that will grow well in specific areas. These guidelines are accessible by linking to NRCS and partners. Local farmers and grazing networks also can help you learn what works in your area.

Kevin Mahalko is a member of the Organic Valley CROPP Cooperative. He’s the president of Grassworks and vice president of the River Country Resource Conservation and Development Council. As a MOSES Organic Specialist, he answers farmers’ questions through the Organic Answer Line: 888-90-MOSES and by email.

 

From the March| April 2020 Issue

 

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