Advisors: flush season grazing plan

This month’s question: What’s your flush-season grazing plan?

Jon Bansen– The period of spring flush is probably by far the most important to manage correctly for a successful grazing season.

An error we made the first couple of years grazing was always chasing over-mature grass. This led to a loss in milk production and a slowing of grass growth after the spring flush due to the plants getting too far into their reproductive stage (setting seed). This slowdown led to more milk loss after the flush.

Our error was in not lowering grain levels during flush. That mid- to late-spring grass is very good feed, with a good mix of fiber, protein and sugar levels. We initially dealt with this problem by keeping more cows in late winter and early spring to help us harvest this extra grass. We would then sell these extras after the flush.

Our philosophy is changing as we position our dairy to be less dependent on expensive grain and high fuel costs for trucking that grain. We will be turning the grain down from eight pounds to as little as four pounds during the spring flush to utilize that high-quality feed and help manage the grass to avoid the problems of over-mature forage.

We will also plant a few acres of forage brassica during early May, which will remove some acres that would otherwise get ahead of us. This will give us some good feed after the flush when things are drying out and heating up, and the pastures have slowed down. Also, we will not hesitate to take one of the fields out of the rotation and harvest it for baleage if, after taking these other steps, the grass is still looking like it will bury us.

The key to all of this is to manage the grass, and not worry about daily milk production. If the grass is kept in a vegetative state that supplies the cows with high-quality forage, better milk production will follow for the entire grazing season.
Jon Bansen milks cows on an organic farm near Monmouth, Oregon.

Bonnie Haugen– The spring growth flush is always a challenge. Every year I work at not losing control, I think I get better, and think I’m on top of it. Then – “poof” – the grass pops over a 24- to 48-hour period, and more of it is out of control than I’d like to see. I don’t worry about grazing the entire farm, and am prepared to mechanically harvest certain acres. However, I have to pay special attention to controlling hillsides that are not easy or even safe for machinery.

Situations change each year. New seedings require extra consideration to avoid spring pugging. I try to “pound” different areas each winter. The result is that some strips don’t grow as fast, but some strips pounded two or more years earlier come on quicker, thicker, and greener than years before, and it takes me longer to graze those acres than I originally guessed. That is a good problem, but it easily throws off my wedge attempts during the flush period.

Every year, I think I can outsmart the grass growth. Every year I get depressed for a few days as I admit defeat to Mother Nature again. One year, I thought I had done my best management job ever until early June temperatures gave the grass its most explosive growth, and in two days time it seemed that everything headed out. All I could do was to keep grazing the best grass, and cut and clip what I could to get it back in shape as soon as possible. Milk production dipped a bit, but when the weather gets hot so fast, I would suppose that both heat stress and forage quality contribute to the drop.

As of late March, my thinking is that this year I should start rotating my yearling heifers earlier than normal. Usually, we are busy enough with freshening and milking chores that I don’t make time to start rotating heifers very early. This is another example of the problems of being a cheap Norwegian. Inthe early growth, I’ll give them a plenty-big area to make sure they have enough feed when it looks sparse. Then I find they that they are more content to be there than I had expected, and I leave them there another day or two. So I get behind in the rotation.

I will have more bovines this year, so when I get my eye re-calibrated, that should help in the spring flush. I also plan on making a rising plate meter, with hopes of managing my forage inventory more confidently. Husband Vance plans to use the Missouri grass-wedge spreadsheet program. I may or may not use its data.

Having different forage mixes can be an advantage most of the year, but this requires special consideration in spring. For instance, any areas that have kura clover are supposed to be grazed shorter to keep the kura from being shaded out, especially on the newer seedings. However, in general I have grazed taller in recent years, which gives me more latitude in the grazing wedge.

With the possibility of drought always a concern, I always hesitate to cut too much for fear of running out of fresh forage. So we usually don’t cut enough to keep a good wedge in the early flush. I’m trying to be more gutsy, cut more, and be willing to supplement with baleage if need be.
Bonnie Haugen milks cows near Canton, Minnesota.

Danny Strite– In our nine years of intensive grazing, I can’t honestly say that we’ve ever had a spring flush to the point we have had excesses of grass. There have been times when the grass was a little ahead, but it has never been unbearable.

We have 90 cows for 96 acres, although we may have only 75 acres when some paddocks are too wet to be grazed. If a paddock gets too old to graze, we simply mow and bale it for stored feed. We typically like to do hay at one shot, although we are willing to do one paddock at a time if necessary.

In general our grazing scheme is the same every year. We typically start grazing wherever we first get grass, and then follow through with that rotation. Around here, we always seem to not have enough grass when it gets dry (a matter of when, not if), so that tends to push us towards leaving perhaps a few more paddocks in the grazing rotation for insurance sake.

Yes, this can and does affect production, but this problem seems to have been lessened with the addition of “Marshall” ryegrass over the last two years. Probably the biggest factor in helping to control mature grass was our almost complete elimination of fescue. When fescue gets old, it’s old. When Marshall ryegrass sets seed, the cows will still eat it to a degree, thereby eliminating some mechanical harvest.
Danny Strite milks cows near Williamsport, Maryland.

Dick Ryan– Perhaps our later turnout (see last month) gets us in a little behind from the start, but normally we can catch up in about 15 to 25 days by “speed grazing” or topping if the weather doesn’t throw us a curve. Speed grazing means we try to rotate through an entire system in 10 to 15 days.

We speed graze for about 30 to 45 days, or until we feel we are close to keeping up. Then we start to slow down. We are fortunate to have different dominant grasses in our systems, as there is about a five- to 15-day difference in the maturation of those grasses. For example, we turn out first into a system dominated by reed canarygrass, which is normally ahead in growth and maturation compared to our other systems. Next to be grazed are the systems with orchardgrass, then our meadow fescue, and last is our system with many grasses and a lot of bluegrass.

We use these maturation differences to our advantage, as it allows us to change stocking rates from system to system should we feel we are getting behind or ahead of schedule in any one system. We learn a little more each year about this intensive management to keep the baler/chopper out of our pastures. Hopefully we are making progress toward keeping the spring flush under control. The major problem or controlling factor is the weather and, since we cannot do anything about that, we will still keep trying to manage the grass and stocking rate to keep us from getting too mature a sward.
Dick Ryan grazes stocker cattle near Lodi, Wisconsin.

Arden Landis– Dealing with the spring flush of grass is at times like trying to shoot a moving target from a moving vehicle. However, having just recovered from my annual case of SCD (seasonal calving disorder), I will say that it may be difficult to manage, but not as stressful if you can stay on top of it.

The real challenge with the spring flush is that no year is ever the same. Most years the spring flush happens here toward the end of May or beginning of June, but last year it never happened until around the first week of July, which is when I was on a family vacation. It took me a week or so to bring things back under control. I had about 25 acres of BMR sudangrass to contend with, plus my other grasses.

The best that one can do is keep traversing the pastures to monitor the growth so that most if not all of the grass can be harvested at high quality, either by grazing or machine if needed. I usually will keep grazing pretty steadily. If it looks like we’re in for a time of drought, the worst that can happen if I didn’t slow down soon enough is that I will need to feed some stored feed.

Our stocking rate has been increased to about one cow per acre, so controlling the grass isn’t as much of a problem. Also, re-seeding each yeartakes acres out of the rotation during the typical seasonal flush. Another thing I have found to be help is to clip ahead of the cows any grass that may be getting on the mature side. I can give them a paddock of more mature grass for the evening grazing, and then let them graze a paddock that has higher-quality grass during the day. I don’t see any real dips in milk production. The cows also eat the older, pre-clipped grass better, with less waste.

Getting the paddocks set up in the grazing wedge of one-third grazed, one-third growing back, and one-third ready to graze is something that you need to do no matter your cow numbers or acres. The grazing wedge gives me a reference point for making my grass management decisions. I use this method to determine which paddocks to graze, skip, or set aside for machine harvest. The wedge also is an indicator of how fast to move the cows.

With that said, remember that no two years are the same, so you need to be flexible with your planning and walk the pastures often. Pasture management isn’t done from the office: grass growth is controlled by weather conditions that are always changing. For me, knowing when to slow down or speed up the grazing rotation is the hardest part. Spring is definitely decision time.
Arden Landis milks cows on an organic farm at Kirkwood, Pennsylvania.

Howard Straub III– There comes a time when you look out over the pastures and wonder what you’re going to do about all that grass.

This comes when the paddocks you started “flash grazing” in March are ripe with nice re-growth, and you haven’t even come close getting your planned two or three rotations completed. This is where knowing your cows and their grass preferences really kicks in. We have three distinct pasture-mix types: ryegrass/clover, brome/orchard/canarygrass, and fescue/clover, which are the first paddocks I abandon for grazing and start haying. That’s primarily due to our cows’ reluctance to eat fescue after it surges past 10 inches or so. It also makes great hay well beyond grazing height. This mix accounts for roughly 25% of our grazing base (although almost none of it can be used in 2007 as we go organic, due to its “transitional” status).

Next on my list for haying are the brome/orchard/canarygrass paddocks. The cows eat these well, but they produce more milk on the ryegrass/clover and, frankly, the brome paddocks are farther from the barn and easier to hay. We rarely make hay from the ryegrass/clover paddocks unless we’re severelyunder-stocked, as in 2004. Paddocks that are not hayed are regularly clipped to control seed heads and improve weed control.

The real challenge in this scheme is making decent hay when it’s ready. Here in mid-Ohio the skies will clear for days, the custom mowers are ready to go, and your name is always at the top of custom baler’s list. (I wish!)
Howard Straub III milks cows near Fredericktown, Ohio.

Bernie Van Dalfsen– My goal has always been to have enough animal intake for all that is grown. Our spring grass growth flush is usually not as intense as it is further north, which probably helps us control growth with cattle alone. We prefer to graze as much of our grass as possible, and buy our hay rather than making it.

To do that I need to be spring calving, so that intake peaks as grass growth peaks. I will reduce grain feeding to increase grass intake. If we still cannot keep up, we begin clipping. We will do some clipping of paddocks 24 hours before grazing, cutting a quarter to one-third of the paddock. We do not slow the rotation at this time. We keep moving to the most mature paddock. Once growth slows, grain feeding goes up again to make up any feed shortage.
Bernie Van Dalfsen milks cows near Reeds, Missouri.