Pasture management tips for successful grazing
Farms that practice smart pasture management spend less on feed and realize greater production from their herd. We caught up with dairy pasture management expert Sarah Flack for some tips on getting the most out of your pasture.
Spring is finally here, time to get grazing. But when do you turn the cows out on pasture? “From the plant’s perspective it is best if the animals don’t graze the plants too short, too early,” notes Flack. “But from the animal’s perspective, you’ve got to turn them out to pasture early enough so that you can set the different stages of regrowth, so the pasture quality can be managed consistently through the rapid spring growth state.”
Flack recommends using a multi-faceted approach for determining if pasture plants are graze ready. “I don’t think pre-grazing height by itself is sufficient,” she says. “It depends on the plant species in the pasture and the farmer’s goals. Because we are dealing with cool-season perennial grasses which lignify and grow really tall at certain times of the year and become less digestible, while at other times of the year become very digestible.”
Graziers should be strategic about where they kick off the grazing season. “If you choose an area on your farm where say your orchard grass has gotten really tall and rank in the last couple of years, your plant density has gotten sort of low – and you choose that to be where you graze the cows or sheep first thing in the spring, you can actually stimulate tillering to increase plant density and stimulate the spreading of the white clover.”
Increasing the quality and density of forages in your pasture helps cows maximize dry matter intake, which positively impacts milk production. “You are increasing the amount of dry matter they can easily get per bite, and you are improving the digestibility of each bite,” explains Flack. “So, they don’t have to chew it as much, they don’t have to work as much to digest it, and they can actually physically eat more of it, because of the high digestibility.”
While each pasture is unique, Flack focuses on three things when evaluating a grazing system: amount of time animals are on the paddock, how short plants are grazed, and length of the regrowth / recovery period.
Time on and time away from each paddock are fundamental to good grazing management. Flack advises using variable recovery periods rather than fixed recovery periods. “Variable means the farmer has to be out there on a regular basis observing how fast the plants are growing in the pasture,” says Flack. “And they are changing the speed of the rotation based on how fast those plants are growing.”
“The slower the plants grow, the longer the recovery period gets to be,” she adds. “So you are always making sure the plants in the paddock are sufficiently regrown and recovered so they are ready to be grazed again.”
Beat the heat stress
Since cow comfort and production go hand in hand, good pasture management includes looking out for animal welfare. Flack recommends farmers consult a heat stress chart for their class of animals to know the heat and humidity at which their animals can experience heat stress. Farmers should also know the signs of heat stress and monitor animals for those early signs.
“Good grazing management by itself will actually help prevent heat stress at the lower temperatures,” adds Flack.
A well-managed pasture is filled with lush green pasture plants. “Right up to their eyeballs if it is the correct pre-grazing height,” notes Flack. “The temperature is going to be lower at the soil surface because of the tall shading plant material and that is where the cows muzzle is going to be. They are getting a lot of extra oxygen from those plants photosynthesizing. There is this really beneficial effect of the pasture canopy keeping things cool.”
Make sure there is plenty of water available and have a shade strategy. Shade needs are unique to a farm’s location, climate and landscape. A pasture with trees widely spaced with plenty of undergrowth for grazing is one ideal situation, notes Flack. Since not all farms have natural growing shade, fixed or mobile shade structures are an alternative.
“The problem with fixed non-portable shade is that you get a trampling effect underneath, and it is being focused in the same place all the time,” says Flack. “I’m more inclined to use a portable shade or move cows back to a barnyard, where you can manage the manure, the feed waste and the trampling impact.”
“Portable shade – if it is not going to blow away – is ideal, because the farmer can actually use the trampling impact under the shade strategically,” adds Flack. “You could do a trample seeding, intentionally trample a problematic weed area…You spread seed, then you put the animals in, they trample the seed in, then you pull them out for a couple months, and you get fantastic germination and establishment of new perennial pasture plants—if the soil moisture conditions and temperatures are right.”
Your mobile shade solution
Shade Haven mobile shade structures can sustain winds up to 40 mph and are easily collapsed in case inclement weather. A Shade Haven can be transported with a truck, tractor or ATV. Three models provide up to 1200 square feet of shade to maximize animal comfort and productivity. Get more out of your pasture with portable shade.
Contact us today for more information or to arrange a demo.
Sarah Flack is an author and consultant specializing in pasture management for grass-based livestock farmers. Her books, workshops and videos empower farmers to create grazing and pasture management systems that work successfully for their unique situations. More information on upcoming workshops, books, videos and consulting services at sarahflackconsulting.com.
May 2-3 – Grazing Workshops in Chenango and Steuben County, NY
June 4-5 – Grazing Workshop at Green Mountain College, Poultney, VT
Aug. 9 – Grazing Workshop at Sweet Rowan Farm, VT
Aug. 16 – Full Day Grazing School, Stone Barns Center, Pocantico Hills, NY