Summer’s Here, Now’s The Time to Step Up Those Pasture Management Practices!

Jul 18, 2022

By Haley Shoemaker

It can be tempting to set pasture management on cruise control once summer rolls around – plants are still lush and green from the springtime, and tasks such as making hay tend to bump grazing rotations down the priority ladder.  However, if a producer has grazed for any amount of time, they know all too well the impact hot and dry weather can have on a forage stand if managed improperly.  As the traditional July heat builds and we head into a period of slower growth and increased recovery time for our pastures, there are some tried and true management practices that can maintain pasture productivity and success for grazing seasons to come.

Resist the urge to overgraze

There’s a long-held principle within the grazing community known as “take half, leave half”.  In essence, this means that grazing should ideally begin once a pasture reaches an average of 8-10 inches of plant height.  Once that forage is grazed to approximately 4 inches (think pop can height), cattle should be moved to the next pasture.  One of the primary benefits here is the preservation of root mass – when at least half of the leaf area of the plant is left, photosynthesis can still occur, and plants have the chance to continue growth.

Allowing cattle to overgraze and remove excessive amounts of leaf area not only leads to decreased root mass and energy reserves within the plant, but also leads to increased soil temperatures, which can prove especially challenging for our cool season grasses.  Essentially, when a grazing system works as it should, the leaf acts as the barrier between the sun and soil, taking up sunlight as needed, and providing shade and helping to prevent evaporation of soil moisture.

Keep it moving . . . but not too fast

We’ve probably all felt the urge to speed up our rotation when the days are long, hot, and dry.  Yet, while moving cattle through pastures at a slower pace during these periods may seem counterintuitive, it is actually recommended in order to give plants adequate time to rest and recover.  The key to avoid grazing yourself out of pasture space is to first determine the number of lots or paddocks needed.  There are a multitude of calculations and formulas dedicated to just this topic, however in this case number of pasture breaks can be calculated by dividing the days of rest needed for recovery by the number of days cattle will spend grazing + 1.  Studies have shown that pastures tend to need upwards of 35 days to fully recover to proper grazing height during the summer months, and that beef rotations may last anywhere from 3 to 5 days in length.  However, the days needed to graze to 4 inches can vary slightly between herds depending on development stage of cattle grazing and size of the paddock.

All this considered, it is still important to remember that even the best laid plans are subject to weather patterns and the ability of our pastures to recover during those dry spells, even with appropriate recovery time.  If it becomes evident that turning cattle out according to the grazing schedule will cause unnecessary stress to the pasture or lead to overgrazing, stored forage or a sacrifice lot may need to be fed or utilized in order to meet nutritional needs.

Use summer to plan ahead for fall and winter grazing

The benefits of grazing don’t have to end in August – in fact, that’s when our pastures can work on getting their “second wind.”  Stockpiling, the practice of allowing forage to build up for use during the winter months, requires a little pre-planning on the producer’s part, however can pay off in the long run through less reliance on stored forage throughout those cold months, and more bang for your buck in terms of pasture usage.  The key to successfully setting up your pastures for stockpiling is to remove cattle before the cold sets in, and before pastures go dormant – typically in the early to middle parts of August.  When the cattle are pulled off, this can serve as the “last pass” for the season, or if needed, pastures can be clipped down to 3-5” to spur the regrowth needed for stockpiling.  It is worth noting that forage variety does matter when considering the timing of grazing stockpiled forages.  Common pasture grasses such as orchardgrass or tall fescue can hold up into the early winter and beyond, whereas legume species such as alfalfa or red clover are not as tolerant of sustained cooler temperatures and should be grazed during fall.

Summer is a busy time on all fronts but investing in your pastures during these months can save time and precious dollars down the road in the form of reduced feed costs.  After all, everything needs to pull its weight in some way on the farm, so why not do yourself a favor, and set up your pastures to work for you?

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