2019: When Green Grass Grows
For many producers, Mother Nature couldn’t have more completely flipped the script with the weather from 2018 to 2019. After drought gripped much of the United States during last year’s growing season, winter snows and spring rains this year have provided more-than-adequate moisture nearly coast to coast — even creating issues with too much water in many regions.
Replenished soil moisture is certainly a blessing to livestock producers whose pastures and hayfields suffered in last year’s sweltering heat and bone-dry conditions. With the drought now a memory and the rain gauge overflowing, these producers may find new grazing opportunities, says Brian Pillsbury, state grazing lands specialist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Madison, Wisconsin.
“Depending on your operation and objectives, 2019 may be the year to add a few animals to your herd, improve your current forages, add new forages or some combination of all of the above,” he says. “It really depends on your individual situation. Our overall goal from a conservation perspective remains the same, however. We want optimum production without degrading the pasture resource or overall environmental quality.”
While lush, green pastures are alluring, Pillsbury cautions against two temptations: grazing wet pastures and pushing stocking rates on forages stressed by drought the previous year.
“You just don’t realize how much damage those cows can do,” he says of grazing on wet soils. “If you wouldn’t put a tractor out to harvest hay, you shouldn’t be putting a mob of cattle out, either. Not until the soil is dry enough to withstand the hoof traffic.”
In regions where drought took its toll in 2018, the extra growth above the surface this spring is the perfect medicine to begin healing any damage below the surface, Pillsbury says. “You want those pastures to recover, and that can take a few months. The extra grass is good for repairing the root systems. More leaf area above ground builds stronger roots.”
In areas where drought wasn’t a factor in 2018 and adequate moisture persists this year, the subsequent additional forage is a resource that producers can utilize in several ways. For those who employ management intensive grazing, the first step is making their paddocks smaller.
“If you subdivide them further, you’re going to get better utilization of the extra forage,” says Pillsbury, noting that temporary electric fencing is an easy way to break up established paddocks. “Those grasses will still need a rest period, though, so rotating the cows through the paddocks is essential.”
How quickly to move the cows depends on the overall condition of the pasture, the type of livestock and the forage species. In situations where a producer is grazing dairy or stocker cattle on high-quality pasture containing a desirable mix of grasses and legumes, Pillsbury recommends top grazing the pasture and moving cows more often to ensure the best quality. However, when a pasture is full of mature, old-growth grasses, legumes and forbs and needs rejuvenation, the strategy turns to mob grazing — allowing animals requiring less nutrition to graze the resource completely down.
“It’s a good way to clear the pasture out and get rid of weeds and old mature grasses,” Pillsbury adds. “After mob grazing, give the pasture a long rest period and let the good species come up and have a chance to perform.”
While Pillsbury doesn’t advise adding momma cows to a herd just to take advantage of a flush of forage, adding seasonal animals such as heifers or stockers that will go to market at the end of the year is a definite option. Offering contract grazing to other livestock producers is an option, too.
“You can still utilize the land and the resource, but at the end of the year, you’re not permanently increasing your stocking rate,” he says.
Interseeding existing pastures or establishing entirely new pastures is also a possibility thanks to this spring’s abundant rainfall. In Wisconsin, Pillsbury says it’s shaping up to be a good year to get a forage seeding in the ground. “With the way commodity markets have been, we’re turning a lot of row crop land up here into pastures as people are getting back into livestock,” he adds.
Of course, grazing isn’t the only way to take advantage of extra forage growth. In many regions, hay is in high demand and commanding high prices.
“Last year in Wisconsin, we had such a wet year that nobody made really good hay, and the market went sky high,” Pillsbury says. “If the hay market stays good, it’s a way to make some money.”
Should setting aside pasture acres be an option, producers still need places for their cattle to graze. Pillsbury says that putting cows onto alternate areas such as around ponds or along streams is an option, but care should be taken.
“Some of these areas haven’t been grazed because they are more sensitive to hoof traffic, so you need to be considerate of what you have,” he says, adding that such areas are best suited for animals that don’t require the highest levels of nutritional quality in the forage, such as a dry dairy cows or yearling heifers. “If you do put them on the creek, around the pond or around any water source, make sure they’re only in there for a certain number of days. Then, move them on to the next location down the creek or bank.”
While countless tons of forage have already grown this spring with more to come, Pillsbury reminds producers that quality issues can occur. He says fast-growing, succulent grasses can contain high levels of protein and low levels of fiber.
“You have to be careful transitioning animals over into those grasses, and you may need to supplement with a little hay to get them some fiber,” he explains. “Otherwise, the protein goes through them very quickly and turns to ammonium. It’s not good for their digestive system.”
Of course, even with such concerns, the early abundance is welcome after last year’s dearth of forage. Pillsbury says that whether the year remains wet or turns dry, producers should follow a simple formula.
“Know the pounds of forage your animals need for a season and how much your pastures will produce per acre,” he concludes. “The goal is to match the two with the proper number of animals for the acres to take advantage of the resources available.”