Over the last 20 years, the most profitable beef herds have been the ones that use some sort of extended grazing system. Proper planning and implementation of winter grazing can dramatically reduce annual cow costs without sacrificing productivity. But this practice can also result in damaged pastures. There are measures producers can take to reduce the negative impact of grazing on winter pastures and encourage better forage growth in the spring.
A common forage management tenet is the “3-inch rule,” which is to maintain a residual of at least 3 inches. Granted, there are exceptions to this rule, such as leaving more grass when pastures are stressed in the summer and using different cutting heights for different species. For example, you cannot manage alfalfa like you do grasses. Alfalfa stores more reserve carbohydrates in the roots, but grasses need residual leaf area and are much more likely to restrict regrowth from close grazing or clipping.
One mistake producers often make in managing winter forages is grazing grasses to the ground, thinking residue isn’t important during the dormant months. However, perennial forages go through a process called “nutrient resorption,” in which they move nutrients and energy from old leaves back to storage locations within the plant. Warm-season grasses, cool-season grasses and legumes do this.
In grasses, leaves stay attached during the dormancy period and are a source of nutrients for grazing. Moisture is required to relocate the nutrients. As long as the leaves and stems have moisture, nutrient resorption can occur. Legumes store energy in the roots; perennial grasses store energy in stems near the base of the plant. This is the source of the rationale for the 3-inch rule.
While all grasses store energy in stems, some grasses have underground stems, or rhizomes. Bermudagrass, Reed’s canarygrass and Johnson grass all have rhizomes. Hard grazing over winter will favor these species over species without rhizomes, even with adequate residual during the growing season. Species such as orchardgrass are less likely to be able to withstand hard grazing pressure and tend to decline over time.
If animals are kept in the same spot all winter, it is likely the area will be gnawed down to the dirt. Spring growth in this heavily used area will be significantly delayed. A possible mediation strategy is to use a specific paddock as a sacrifice feeding area during the winter. The best candidate for a sacrifice paddock is one that will be rotated next spring. This sacrifice field will have a concentrated feeding area and will protect the other paddocks from being damaged.
An effective strategy to minimize damage and mud accumulation is to change where the hay feeders, mineral feeders or feedbunks are located in the sacrifice pastures. This encourages livestock to go to different and unpopular parts of the paddock.
If there aren’t any fields to be rotated, then rotate animals, not leaving them in a given paddock long enough to cause excessive defoliation. Monitor the residual, again maintaining at least 3 inches of forage. Of course, the defoliation will not be uniform. The grass around the hay ring will be pounded down, while the forage 200 yards away may be untouched.
If you’re not satisfied with the performance of your pastures, there are still a few things you can do this winter to improve grazing next year. Assess the number of forage species in your pasture. If legumes are limited, consider frost seeding red clover when the freeze-thaw cycles begin in late winter/early spring. Typically, 3-5 pounds per acre of red clover should be broadcast every two or three years. The clover will help with nitrogen fixing for the surrounding grasses and will also provide some extra tonnage and energy during the summer when cool-season grasses slow their growth.
There is not a “one-size-fits-all” answer to reducing pasture damage during winter feeding. Producers should analyze their individual operations and determine if there are small steps they can take to reduce the damage incurred annually while feeding in the winter. Reach out to your MFA livestock specialists for more information or assistance in developing a forage management plan.
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