Spring grazing management for dairy farms

It is easy to get caught up in the busyness of spring with calving, fence fixing and getting ready for haying and planting, but spring is also a critical time for grazing management and planning ahead.  The rapidly growing spring pastures can be hard to keep up with as we start rotating the cows in, but it is important to be planning ahead to when those pastures aren’t growing back as fast.  Pasture plants need time to rest after each grazing, giving them time to replenish energy stored in roots (by photosynthesizing).  This is why a rotational or management intensive grazing results in higher quality (and quantity) of pasture than continuous grazing.

Continuously grazing animals in the same pasture or returning them to a pasture before it is fully re-grown does not give the plants time to recover.  Repeated grazing, without adequate time for plants to re-grow, results in plants that weaken, may stop growing and die.  These weakened plants will not be able to compete with weed species, and won’t be able to hold the soil as well, resulting in bare soil and erosion.  Some grasses and clovers will survive by staying very short, never growing tall enough for livestock to easily graze, while other areas in the pasture will be rejected by livestock, soon growing up into weeds, brush or small trees.

The tricky part of this is that the plants grow twice as fast in the spring compared to later in the summer.  This is where the spring planning of the seasons grazing comes it.  By planning what order to graze your spring pastures, and what areas to hay first, we can get ready to add more land into the grazing rotation in late spring or early summer when pasture growth slows.  If the number of grazing acres is not increased, the plants will not be getting enough rest, and dry matter intake by animals will drop, resulting in both poor animal and poor pasture performance.  One of the most common mistakes in grazing is not adding additional acres as plant growth rates slow.

This is not good for the plants, but it is also hard on the cows, as they need enough height and density of plants in the pasture in order to eat enough dry matter on the pasture.  Cows can only take a certain number of bites each day, then they need to go rest and chew their cuds.  This is why many dairy farms provide the cows with a fresh pasture after each milking, and make sure that the pasture is fully regrown before the cows go into it.  When cows are turned into a pasture which is 6 to 10 inches tall, the cows are able to rapidly fill their rumens with high quality high protein feed.

Because pasture is a high protein feed, cows will do best if they are fed a high energy feed in the barn during the grazing season.  A common mistakes for dairy farmers converting to grazing is to continue to feed a high protein grain once the cows have started grazing in the spring.  This not only costs money in grain, but it is hard on the cow’s health and productivity.  Corn meal, barley, molasses, or corn silage are some of the high energy feeds which work well for cows on pasture.

Grazing tips:

  • Don’t follow a set rotation, graze according to plant growth rates.  If one pasture grows faster than the others, graze it more often.  If you have a pasture which grows very slowly, graze some other areas and let the plants grow back.
  •  Don’t let animals back into an area until it has grown tall enough
  •  Try to make pastures small enough so that cows don’t stay in one area for more than 3 days, 12 – 24 hours per pasture is far better.
  •  Move animals frequently – moving animals more frequently can increase dry matter intake and improve pasture quality faster.
  • Lock animals in each paddock so they can’t wander back to the barn.  This is one of theeasiest ways to manage soil fertility in pastures by keeping the manure in the pasture instead of the lane.
  • Use a back fence to prevent “back grazing”, so that animals don’t overgraze favoriteplants.
  • Switch to a low protein high energy grain in the barn as soon as the cows go out to pasture in the spring.
  •  Make sure pastures are tall enough and plant density is high enough so that the cows are getting enough daily dry matter intake.
  •  Plan ahead now for what additional land to add into the grazing rotation later.