April 1, 2012

Time for pasture checkup

Peter Hagar: Cornell Ag Connection

---- — This is the time of year we look forward to all winter.

The unseasonably warm weather of last week melted the frost out of the ground and dried up the muddy surface. The grasses have started to green up and the coming April showers will give a quick boost to grow tall.

For most folks, that means mowing the lawn, a tedious weekly chore that must get done. For those of us with grazing animals, it means the end of feeding hay! You may be dreading start of lawn-mowing season, but believe me, there are many of us who love to watch the grass grow.

The early warm up offers livestock grazers a great opportunity to assess the pastures, fences and opportunities for this season. Often taken for granted, pasture is an important agricultural resource that many livestock farmers depend on for summer feed.

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 dairy heifers, 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 unlikely to provide the nutrition needed.

A more modern view that has developed 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.

Maintaining balance requires close observation and dedicated management. As with all crops, many factors must be planned for to grow and maintain a consistent, high quality pasture. Certain varieties of grasses and legumes provide higher quality and yields than native grasses and brush. Better quality soils and fields will also grow better pastures.

Rotational grazing is has improved the way in which pastures can be harvested and livestock grown more efficiently. Just like a lawn is mowed and grows back to be mowed again, rotational grazing allows livestock access to only a small portion of pasture for one or several days at a time.

Once the pasture is grazed down to the recommended height for the type of forage present, the livestock are moved to a new portion of pasture, allowing the previously grazed portion to recover.

When this practice is utilized, the total volume of high quality forage can be greatly increased over the grazing season.

With a recent increase in interest for locally grown grass-fed beef and other livestock products, improved pastures and rotational grazing have also attracted more attention.

If you are a farmer looking for assistance in developing a grazing plan, the USDA's Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative (GLCI) was founded to provide high-quality technical assistance on privately owned grazing lands and to increase the awareness of the importance of grazing-land resources.

For more information about developing a grazing plan to improve your pastures, intensive grazing and other livestock-related questions, contact the local Cornell Cooperative Extension office at 561-7450 or email me at

Peter Hagar, agriculture program educator, Cornell Cooperative Extension Clinton County, 6064 Rt. 22 Plattsburgh, 12901. Call 561-7450.