A Single Grazing Day Too Early in Spring Loses Three Days in Fall

CANADA - Crested wheat grass, fall rye and winter triticale are great for early spring growth but farmers should not be rushing cattle onto pasture, says Grant Lastiwka, forage expert at Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development.
calendar icon 29 May 2013
clock icon 4 minute read

With last year’s early start to winter and now a late spring, many cow/calf producers are running out of feed. As a means of dealing with feed shortages, cattle are being turned out early on pasture.

Choice of forage species, health and fertility of the stand, using a grazing plan where stocking rate X grazing days is in conservative balance to pasture carrying capacity, or having excess acres of pasture all allow for an earlier start to the grazing season.

“For early spring grazing, some producers are using grass species planted specifically for very early spring growth,” says Mr Lastiwka . “Crested wheat grass or winter cereals start growing as the snow disappears. Crested wheat grass is a key early spring pasture in southern parts of the prairies or in other parts of the provinces that tend to have more dry climates. Its use allows for the later growing tame or native pastures to not be grazed before they are ready.

“Annuals such as fall rye, winter triticale and winter wheat also provide early spring grazing and may be cut for grain later in the summer. Some other grasses such as meadow smooth or hybrid brome grass, Kentucky blue grass, quack grass and Russian wild rye are a bit later to come, but still provide relatively early spring grazing. Having some of these species allows earlier turnout without negatively affecting this year’s future pasture production or cow/calf performance.”

Pasture stands that are healthy or have been fertilized will also have faster new green growth in spring. These are pastures most often managed using planned or controlled grazing. Graziers using planned grazing usually use shorter grazing periods with long rests for plant nutrient recovery between grazings.

The key is the rest period. Rest is “on plant time” or biological time and cannot be simply determined by calendar days. In spring when moisture and sunlight are excellent, biological rest is shorter for plants. In summer, biological rest is longer as growth slows.

Some pastures have a second or third grazing as long as plant growth habit or moist conditions allow for sufficient regrowth for plant nutrient recovery.

“For producers who do not have 3 to 3 ½ leaves of new growth per plant, grazing before this really sets back these plants and your pocketbook,” says Mr Lastiwka . “This is where the Hugo Gross of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada rule-of-thumb came from. Hugo found that one day too early grazing in spring forage pastures gave about three days less grazing in the fall.

“This is a very important shortfall as we know from Alberta Agriculture senior economist Dale Kaliel’s benchmark Agri-Profit$ work, that grazing longer has been a tool used to cut costs and create profits for many Alberta cow/calf producers. Work by the Western Forage Beef Group at Lacombe showed grazing to be half the cost of conventional winter feeding.”

Cost for traditional winter feeding now is over $2/day, which means that grazing one day too early may result in losing $5 net this fall by an earlier start to feeding. Grazing readiness for a new plant is commonly thought to be at the 3 to 3 ½ leaf stage. Llewelyn Manske of North Dakota research on this subject also showed that:

...grazing during early spring prior to range readiness also deprives grass plants of needed leaf area and results in reductions in grass growth, herbage production, and economic returns. Starting grazing before the third-leaf stage, as does the season-long treatment with grazing starting May 15, causes a reduction in herbage biomass production (-45 per cent ), which causes reductions in stocking rate (-29 per cent ), calf average daily gain (ADG) (-14 per cent ), and calf gain per acre (-40 per cent ) compared to stocking rate, calf average daily gain, and calf gain per acre on the season-long treatment with grazing starting after the third-leaf stage.

This reduction in animal performance causes a decrease in net returns (gross minus pasture and forage costs) per cow-calf pair (-80 per cent ) and per acre (-89 per cent ) compared to net returns per cow-calf pair and per acre on the season-long treatment with grazing starting after the third-leaf stage.

“For those producers grazing this early growth that is less than the 3 to 3 ½ leaf stage, once other pastures are ready, give the early-grazed pastures all of 2013 to recover,” says Mr Lastiwka . “They will need it to be productive in 2014.”

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