Spring is just around the corner, and preparations for the upcoming grazing season are in full swing. Farmers are checking their fences and water systems, and frost-seeding legumes to improve pasture quality. Soon there will be livestock out on grass, and less (if any) feeding to do in the barns! But with all the excitement, have you put much thought into your spring grazing plan? Where should you start?
There are two schools of thought on which paddock should be grazed first. One is to start each spring in a different paddock, so that the grasses are not being grazed at the same time every year. This strategy can help maintain a diverse mix of species in your pastures, because changing when livestock eat those plants means a different species bears the brunt of that stress each year. The disadvantage to this strategy is that it assumes all your paddocks are similar: that they have the same drainage, the same soil type, and they are ready to be grazed at the same time in the spring. If your farm is not very uniform – think hills or wet areas – there will be paddocks that simply cannot be grazed first without the rest of the pasture getting over-mature.
The other approach is to plant different mixtures in different paddocks, taking advantage of the variation in growth patterns between species and differences in heading dates for various cultivars. The paddocks that drain well and are ready to graze first would be planted with grasses and legumes that are productive early on, while wetter paddocks would be seeded with later-heading varieties and species that grow later in the year. While the paddocks would be grazed in roughly the same order every year, the pasture mixtures are tailored to support this management strategy. The downside is that it takes more work to figure out what should be planted where, and buying several seed mixes may cost more than a large amount of one mix.
Dr. Yousef Papadopoulous at AAFC’s Nappan research station has been studying pasture mixes. He has worked on simple and complex mixtures, complimentary grass and legume species, and how grass varieties perform in mixes. In a webinar held February 2017 called “Making Forage Mixtures Work for You”, he outlined which forage species are most productive at different times of year:
Early spring: meadow bromegrass, orchardgrass, Kentucky bluegrass, red fescue, and white clover
Late spring: meadow bromegrass, orchardgrass, Kentucky bluegrass, reed canarygrass, perennial ryegrass, red fescue, and white clover
Early summer: meadow bromegrass, orchardgrass, timothy, meadow or tall fescue, reed canarygrass, perennial ryegrass, white or red clover, birdsfoot trefoil
Mid- to late summer: meadow bromegrass, orchardgrass, meadow or tall fescue, reed canarygrass, alfalfa, red clover, birdsfoot trefoil
Early fall: Kentucky bluegrass, tall fescue, reed canarygrass, red clover
Late fall: Kentucky bluegrass, tall or meadow fescue, reed canarygrass, red clover
How can you use this information to create the right pasture mix for your farm? There are figures that outline which forage species thrive in different soil drainage and pH conditions in Chapter 2 of Publication 19: Pasture Production. Rule out anything that won’t grow well in the fields you intend to seed.
Then decide which approach to first-paddock selection makes most sense for your farm and management style. If you decide that starting in a different paddock each year is best for you, seed a pasture mix that includes some grasses and legumes from each time period listed above in all your paddocks. If starting in the same place every year fits your operation best, consider planting different mixes in different paddocks, using the above time periods to guide mixture creation for different areas on your farm.
There are lots of things to balance in the spring: calving/lambing, grazing, planting, and pasture regrowth. Choosing a pasture mix that suits your farm and your management style makes that balancing act a little easier. Warmer weather will soon be here…happy grazing!
If you want to read more about Dr. Papadopoulous’ research, there is an excellent summary on the Beef Cattle Research Council’s blog.