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February 16, 2014

Planning for greener pastures

It certainly doesn’t feel like winter is letting us off the hook early this year, apparently the groundhog had some inside information. 

And while the ground is covered with a layer of ice and snow, those of us with grazing animals know that spring will soon be on the way. What better time than now to start planning for better pastures. 

Our short growing season makes tilling the soil and planting our annual crops quite urgent, but pasture is also an important crop that receives less attention than it really deserves. Often taken for granted, pasture is an important agricultural resource that many livestock farmers depend on for summer feed. 

And while many of our larger dairies no longer depend on grazing pasture for a significant part of their feeding program, pastures play a much more important role in raising livestock such as beef cattle, sheep and goats.

A well-managed pasture can in fact provide excellent feed to growing livestock with little supplementation. But what is well-managed pasture? Unfortunately, non-tillable, swampy, brushy or rocky fields that are poor in condition or fertility often end up as pasture. While they are probably not suitable for growing other crops, these types of lands also make very poor pastures. 

All too often, livestock are turned out into one big pasture for the summer and left to their own devices. If a livestock owner’s goal is to grow his animals in the quickest, most efficient way possible, this is seldom the best way.

A more modern view is that pasture should be seen as a perennial crop that deserves the same care and management as other crops on the farm. Pasture management can be complicated. Few other farming activities involve growing a crop, growing livestock and harvesting the crop all at the same time. 

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