Spring has truly sprung! With the weather trending warmer and no shortage of precipitation, pasture and hayfields are waking up and growing. In some areas, forages have been off to the races longer than others, and are beginning to mature and enter the reproductive stages of growth.
As I’ve walked my pastures in the rolling hills of Adams County, Ohio, I’ve taken note of the many different grass species and even legumes in the pastures beginning to bolt and shoot a seed head. This is not uncommon for many of our cool-season forages, such as Kentucky bluegrass, orchardgrass, perennial ryegrass and tall fescue.
What is concerning is not the date at which the forage is maturing, but the height at which it is maturing. According to my records the first week of May, 2021 presented daytime highs around 75 degrees F and nighttime lows of 50 degrees — and a forage height of 33 inches and beginning the boot stage of growth.
On the flip side, forage height in my pastures this year are about 24 inches in height and beginning early boot stage of growth. Five inches of growth might not seem like much, but this could be a difference of 1,000 pounds of dry matter yield per acre.
As an Extension educator, I always like to ask mind-stimulating questions. I sometimes ask them to myself, and on occasion, I even answer said question. The questions I have are, why is forage height much shorter this growing season, how can I manage shorter forage heights or lower yields, what should I be doing now to stay ahead of forage maturing and quality degradation, and finally, what should my stocking density be?
As I mentioned earlier, I occasionally answer my own questions, and the answer is to review my grazing management plan. Now I am going to ask, do you have a grazing management plan for your farm? If your answer is no, it is still not too late to make one.
A grazing management plan is a critical tool every livestock or pasture manager should have. Providing steps to better manage forages and natural resources not only makes the pasture healthier, but in turn also makes livestock heathier, which will equate to greater returns to the farm operation.
Let’s discuss the steps and considerations when creating a grazing management plan for your farm:
Who can help? Before constructing a GMP, first find help. I have learned that sometimes it is best to get a fresh set of eyes on the farm. As a producer myself, I understand when things get busy we often overlook things others might take notice. For example, I might walk past a patch of yellow buttercup growing in pasture every day and not think a thing about it, but someone new might take notice of it and inform me of the potential toxicity to livestock. Help can be found at your Extension office, local Natural Resources Conservation Service, Soil and Water Conservation District, and don’t forget about your fellow farmer that has experience in grazing management practices.
Set goals for the operation. The process of developing a GMP can be a great time to take a deep look at your operation and set goals for the future. Goals can include improving farm sustainability, sustaining or improving forage quality or diversity, improving soil health, reducing labor, building infrastructure, and even diversifying or expanding marketing opportunities.
Take a closer look at the current operation. Know what is working and what is not. Remember this is the time to get technical assistance involved in the planning process. Producers can often get comfortable with what they are doing even though it may not be leading to the best results. Obtain good maps of the farm, and label existing pastures, hayfields, fence, watering facilities and environmentally sensitive areas — including streams and woodlands. This is also a good time to take pictures of your operation, including the pastures, livestock and infrastructure.
Start walking. Take time to walk the pasture and evaluate the different types of grasses, legumes and forbs. Take note if the plants look healthy, or are they struggling to grow? As you walk your pasture, you can begin to score the condition of the pasture. Pasture condition scoring gives a score between 1 and 5, with the 1 needing much improvement and 5 being exceptional condition. Scoring the pasture should be done throughout the whole growing season and after each change in management practice has been implemented.
Take inventory. Determine the amount of pastureland available for grazing, then inventory the number of animals you have on the farm and include average weight, age and type of livestock. This is also a good time to take inventory of stored forages available and to get soil and forage quality tests done to place in GMP records.
Create a contingency plan. Every grazing management plan should have a Plan B, C, or even D. Factors such as weather, market conditions or personal health can play key roles in how you manage your pastures. This is the time to start thinking about how the operation would adapt or change to different disruptions or challenges.
Write it down. You have all the critical information. Now it’s time to write it down. I recommend using a pencil and paper, not a permanent marker or chisel and stone. A GMP is an evolving document and not permanent, but made to correct or change as you begin to implement your plan.
Have fun and involve everyone in the operation. The grazing management plan should be constructed to make life easier, not harder. Make it enjoyable, sit down at the kitchen table with the rest of the family or employees, and let them sketch out their ideas on a map. Take all the ideas and pick and choose through them.
Purdin is the OSU Extension educator for AgNR in Adams County. He is also a member of the OSU Extension Beef Team that publishes the weekly Ohio BEEF Cattle letter, which can be found at beef.osu.edu.