Cattle grazing systems and how to improve them

Grazing season is just around the corner — a welcome break from cold weather, muddy lots and delivering feed to cows. As springtime approaches, it may be worthwhile to think about ways to improve your grazing system. This article is from Christopher Clark, Beef Field Specialist at Iowa State University, and was published in the, on March 28.

Are there things you could do differently to extend the grazing season, improve profitability, increase carrying capacity, improve conservation, etc.? Here are a few points to consider as you prepare for the upcoming grazing season:

1. Delay turnout until grass is growing well

The appropriate date to begin grazing depends on geographic location, species of plants, weather and other such factors. Tall cool-season grasses should be 4 to 6 inches tall prior to turnout and Kentucky bluegrass should be at least 2 inches tall. It can be tempting to turn cows out a bit early, but premature turnout can have a negative impact on overall yield for the grazing season. Pastures that were overgrazed the previous season will be slower to take off and may require additional time prior to grazing. If you must begin grazing earlier than desired, strive to maintain a modest stocking rate. Additionally, consider the use of cover crops to be grazed. Spring grazing cover crops can work well to bridge the gap between winter feeding and grazing of perennial pastures.

2. Utilize some form of rotational grazing

Rotational grazing can allow paddocks to rest and recover, ultimately improving forage yield. Rotational grazing can also encourage more uniform use of pasture forage, promote more uniform manure distribution and promote plant diversity. There are many ways to incorporate rotational grazing into an operation. Ease into it. Experiment and research to find what works for you. You do not have to transition overnight from a continuous grazing system to daily rotations. Start with a cross fence or two. Even two or three paddocks will be better than one large, continuously grazed pasture.

3. Build plant diversity

Good pasture management (rotational grazing, not overgrazing, etc.) will promote plant diversity. Additional species could also be introduced through frost-seeding or interseeding. Consider the use of additional grass species and legumes. Legumes can offer several benefits such as nitrogen fixation, drought tolerance, high-quality forage and continued production through the heat of the summer. Some legumes can be a bloat risk when consumed in large quantities, and incorporation of legumes will have an impact on your weed control program. With some effort though, legumes can be high-quality, productive components of pasture mixes.

4. Monitor pasture condition and body condition of the cattle

Keep an eye on pastures throughout the  season, paying attention to species present, live plant cover, plant vigor, pattern of use, erosion and other such factors

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