By: Juan P. Alvez | Pasture Technical Coordinator
UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture
(for post with pictures visit: VT Pasture Network)
Farming requires mental and physical involvement in the complex management of the soil, plants, animals, people, equipment, weather and markets. While this complexity is constantly changing, problems can sometimes become opportunities. Then, anything livestock producers can do to keep animals rotationally grazing for as long as possible, will return lower costs and higher benefits in general. Exceptions should be made during extreme cold and wind, of course.
A common challenge when trying to extend the grazing season is that, in northeastern United States, grazing does not last the entire year, but it can be extended if carefully planned.
Generally, it is safe to assume that we can count on a grazing season that goes from April until September (though grazing through October or early November may be possible, depending upon a grazing plan (see Troy Bishop’s grazing charts and planning resources), well-managed pastures, and the use of annual forage supplementation before feeding hay bales. ‘Well-managed’ means, rationally rotating high stock density through small paddock areas, for periods not exceeding 2 or 3 days, leaving these resting behind with about 4 inches of trampled forage residue.
Pasture is dynamic. While extending the grazing season and increasing productivity and net profits are common challenges, a recommended approach (other than encouraging as many forage-adapted species as possible), is to manage the sward dynamically and with flexibility because, pasture farming is dynamic. This flexible management must also be observed with the animals.
For example, strategically promoting long rest periods in some areas of the farm at times, may encourage natural seeding, root development, soil health and habitat for beneficial fauna. Or, heavily grazing down other areas of the farm may advantageously help re-balance forage species. Stockpiled forage for later winter grazing in fallowed areas or winter “bale grazing” must also be used with flexibility.
It is important to match forage quality and intake to animal needs because, certain animals that require higher nutritional demands must graze the best relative forage quality. For example, milking or breeding cows have different nutrient demands than dry animal or heifers thus, milking or breeding cows must receive the best pastures.
Moreover, a sustained production, will depend on full time dedication and constant access to reliable information. For this and other reasons, grazers must walk their pastures, observe their animals, take notes and if possible pictures.
Suggested Strategies for Extending the Grazing Season
- April to September: Graze most of the pastures normally;
- June: Between the first and second hay cut, reserve a few paddocks for seeding warm season annual species to be grazed late in the summer when is dry. This bulk production can last through the end of August (high yields may need fertilization), providing one or two cuts or grazings;
- August: Defer a few paddocks for winter, stockpiling forages by fencing animals out;
- September: 3 weeks before the killing frost, seed winter annuals; the area left by the warm season species could be an option to use. Winter annual forages can extend the season another 30 or 60 days.
- Strip-graze the stockpiled forages deferred in August; when finished, feed the hay bales harvested until the next Spring.