Grazing in the Shoulder Season
BROOKINGS, S.D. – There has been an increasing push towards lengthening the grazing season in order to feed less hay, and with good reason, explained Jimmy Doyle, SDSU Extension Natural Resource Management Field Specialist.
“Winter feed is often one of the most expensive components of the cow-calf year. By reducing the amount of time spent feeding stored feeds, producers can realize significant savings in feed costs, labor and machinery costs,” Doyle said.
Of course, grazing into and through the winter comes with many challenges. One of the simplest ways to start, Doyle said is by gradually extending the amount of time livestock graze in the fall.
“Extended grazing can help improve the long term economic and environmental sustainability of the ranch, but does not happen overnight,” Doyle said.
Below, Doyle discusses strategy for tame and native pastures as well as management considerations.
“Grazing the shoulder season requires management and planning. It is not necessarily as simple as leaving the cows in the same pasture longer,” he said.
Management strategies will differ depending on the plant communities and goals of the producer.
Tame pastures can be an excellent option for fall grazing.
“Introduced cool season grasses will often green up and show some regrowth with the moisture and cooler temperatures of fall,” Doyle said.
If pastures have received adequate rest since the last grazing period, these introduced grasses (especially smooth brome, Kentucky bluegrass, etc.) can handle fall grazing well – without impacting future productivity.
Hay fields, in particular sub-irrigated or meadow fields, can often regrow enough to provide a bit of late season grazing.
Fall can also be a good time, Doyle explained, to intentionally stress undesirable cool season grasses in a heavily invaded pasture to try to restore native species.
“When using this strategy, managers should take care to ensure they are limiting severe grazing to the appropriate areas and are not negatively impacting desirable plant communities,” he said.
Native range sites can produce excellent dormant season grazing, but can also be more sensitive to repeated grazing within the same year.
“Fall grazing on native range requires more planning to avoid negative impacts to the plant community,” Doyle said.
He explained that a native pasture may not be suitable for fall grazing unless it has received a full growing season of deferment, was grazed lightly early in the season or ideal moisture conditions have provided excellent regrowth.
Drought management for late grazing native pastures and other management considerations
In dry years, Doyle said it is better to err on the side of caution and avoid grazing native sites twice during the growing season.
“One good strategy is to rest native pastures through the fall and use crop residue, cover crops or tame pastures until dormancy occurs on native range in winter,” he said. “Many native grasses cure well and can be used as an excellent source of standing forage through the winter.”
Regardless of the plant community, Doyle said the principles of sound grazing management still apply during autumn.
“One common mistake is to assume that plants can be grazed shorter during the fall because the bulk of the growing season is over,” Doyle said. “However, the truth is, fall is an important time for plant and range health. It is important to leave adequate residual material to ensure plants have adequate root reserves for spring regrowth.”
He added that residual material is especially important in drought years or for pastures that have been grazed recently.
“Adequate residual in fall and winter protects plant crowns and catches snow for moisture and to protect plants from extreme temperatures,” he said.
Grazing too severely, except when addressing specific management goals, will only serve to cause a long term decline in pasture health and productivity.
“The season of use should be rotated among pastures to prevent dominance of one plant type and support diversity,” Doyle said.
Doyle explained that the management changes when grazing forages late into the fall come with new challenges which producers should carefully consider when weighing the pros and cons of a new system.
“Challenges with grazing later in the year are primarily centered around bad weather,” Doyle said.
He encouraged producers to consider the following questions:
- Is shelter readily accessible?
- Are the pastures accessible to deliver feed or bring livestock home?
- Are water sources reliable in cold temperatures?
“These obstacles can often be overcome, but require planning and forethought,” he said.
Contact Doyle if you have any questions on fall grazing. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.