Press-Republican

May 12, 2013

Spring rains mean green meadows

Peter Hagar, Cornell Ag Connection
Press-Republican

— This is the time of year we look forward to all winter. For some of you 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 the spring grasses, but believe me, there are many of us who love to watch the grass grow.

While our short growing season makes tilling the soil and planting our annual crops quite urgent, there is another important crop that sometimes 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. 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 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 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.

Rotational grazing also benefits the environment. A well-managed pasture can protect the environment by reducing soil erosion, protecting water quality and decreasing nutrient losses. Pastures left unmanaged can become overgrazed, leading to poor quality grasses, an increase in weeds and erosion. Because pastures are usually more marginal farmland, they are more prone to erosion. By controlling animal access and allowing for regrowth, pasture quality and yield will be increased and erosion decreased.

Cornell Cooperative Extension and the Lake Champlain Basin Program are again collaborating to hold another “Farming in the Basin” event. On May 29 at the Wood “n” River Farm in Willsboro, retired NRCS conservationist Rich Redman will discuss the importance of rotational grazing, erosion control and best-management practices. Tiffany Pinheiro of the Essex County Soil and Water district will also be there to let farmers know how the Agricultural Environmental Management program can help plan and implement practices to improve their grazing system. Whether you already have livestock or are just thinking about learning more about grazing, this should be a valuable experience.

To register or for more information about this meeting or for help improving your pastures, intensive grazing and other livestock-related questions, please contact the local Cornell Cooperative Extension office at 561-7450 or email me at phh7@cornell.edu.

Peter Hagar, Cornell Cooperative Extension Clinton County, 6064 Route 22, Suite 5, Plattsburgh, N.Y., 12901, call 561-7450 or email Phh7@cornell.edu.