Spring Pasture Improvement Strategies

Published on Thu, 02/24/2022 - 10:58am

Spring Pasture Improvement Strategies.

 By Maura Keller.

 As the winter snows continue to blanket many pastures and grazing areas, some areas are beginning to see seedlings of perennial forges emerge as the ground begins to thaw and snow coverage begins to recede. And it is at this time that dairy producers and cattle ranchers set their sights on establishing healthy spring pastures.

Spreading compost, implementing rotational grazing, installing cross fencing, or seeding with perennial species – these techniques can have a huge impact on the quality of the spring pasture conditions.

As Drew Denman, business development manager at Pennington Seed Co. explains, there is an important component to rotational grazing and cross fencing as it relates to improving spring pastures.

“The opportunity to capitalize on forage production potential as well as maximize cattle performance are the roads where rotational grazing and cross fencing meet,” Denman says. “Rotational grazing allows a forage producer to meet the needs of his operation for a longer duration throughout the spring grazing window. In doing so, profitability is increased as prime growing windows are utilized by livestock at peak forage nutritional levels.”

Pennington’s story began in 1945 as a small seed store on Main Street in Madison, Georgia. Brooks Pennington Sr., the company’s founder, started by supplying local farmers and ranchers with quality cotton, soybean and agricultural grass seeds. Gradually Pennington moved out of the retail seed business and set their sights on supplying agricultural seed to retailers across the southeastern U.S. The company decided to concentrate their efforts on pastures and forage products and later for lawn and turf.

Denman says that the importance of maximizing utilization is potentially greater now more than ever. As the quality of seed continues to be a top priority, the drive for maximized potential of not only the forage crop in focus, but the production livestock that are consuming it, continues to evolve.

Eric Rubinstahl of the Marin (California) Agricultural Land Trust, a nonprofit organization created in 1980 to permanently preserve Marin County farmland and establish Marin County as a thriving and inclusive agricultural community in a healthy and diverse natural environment.

According to Rubinstahl, rotational grazing as it relates to spring pastures can have many positive impacts on working lands such as increased forage production, increased soil fertility, improved water infiltration, less soil compaction, and increased forage utility.

“In order to maximize the benefits of rotational grazing, it requires active management. Producers that strategically take into consideration the topography, water resources, soil type, forage species, slope and shade for their animals can break up their fields to best maximize seasonal forage production,” Rubinstahl says. “It can’t be underscored enough that the impact of cross fencing and rotational grazing varies greatly depending on the type of system the ranch or dairy is in. Generally speaking, here in west Marin, the landscape is dominated by rolling hills populated by annual grasslands, rocky outcrops and steep north facing forested hillsides. These factors are taken into consideration when creating a conservation plan or building cross fences with associated water troughs.”

Steps to Take
When trying to improve spring pastures, partnering with a seed dealer, extension specialist or local expert and focusing on soil fertility prior to developing a plan, is a step that is often skipped by producers.

“This, paired with seed selection, are two of the greatest controllable inputs when evaluating a forage program” Denman says. Often, producers also place price ahead of quality in the seed selection process as well as addressing soil fertility issues.  

That’s’ why Denman says that when developing a forage plan, it is important to concentrate on long term goals.

“More often than not, keeping long term goals in mind, might not be the least expensive route. Although this might be the case initially, it could be the approach that you will reap the benefits from well into the future,” Denman says. “Providing value added products that will provide peak performance and longevity resulting in greater return on investment should remain at the forefront.”

In addition to forage plans and proper seed selection, paying attention to the available technology can also greatly improve spring pastures. Of course, the availability of technological advancements in the livestock and or farming realm can be overwhelming at times. Whether it be new planting equipment for the spring pasture, or a new suggested management technique, or the latest supplement to hit the market, the focal points can be numerous.

Denman points out that NC State Animal Science Extension Specialist and Amazing Grazing Coordinator, Johnny Rogers, penned an article referring to rotational grazing and “The Power of One Wire” when referring to one of the most valuable techniques or tools that can be utilized in a grazing system.

“Something as simple as movable electric fence has given producers the opportunity to keep cost low and utilize forages at peak nutritional levels while at the same time resting the grazed forage,” Denman says. “Geographic considerations are important when discussing seed selection, soil fertility and planting time to name a few, but fencing selection can potentially be one choice that transcends geography.”

Indeed, as Rubinstahl explains, the design of a grazing management strategy should be based in part on the characteristics of the spring pasture forage species, type of livestock and stocking rates.

“Often, springtime is most conducive to forage production because of increased soil moisture and sunlight that allow for rapid growth, so it is important to develop a grazing strategy that encourages optimal species growth and regeneration,” Rubinstahl says.

Rotational grazing also can serve as a really effective tool for spring pasture and rangeland management. For example, as Rubinstahl points out, if one large 100-acre field were broken into five smaller 20-acre fields, the ranch manager could move animals from paddock to paddock allowing four of the five paddocks to rest at a time. This allows the land to rest and recover. “Cross-fencing, whether temporary or permanent, is the primary means for controlling the rate and timing of disturbance on these working lands. If breaking up larger fields, it is necessary to have a water source in each paddock, therefore building water infrastructure is a must,” Rubinstahl says. “This high impact, short duration form of multi-paddock grazing encourages livestock to mimic the trampling and grazing of forage species that herds of wild ungulates formerly roamed upon on open grasslands.” Ultimately, rotational grazing is an effective means of combining long-term conservation objectives with agricultural production on spring pastures through proper rest and disturbance patterns that allow for optimal species development, soil conditions and move evenly distributed manure. Cross fencing and water development are the tools to help achieve a strong rotational grazing regime.

Protecting soil and water quality is difficult and sometimes neglected leading to unintended consequences, especially in the spring. For example, the residual dry matter (RDM) from the previous season plays a large role in how grasses and forbs respond in the spring months.

As Rubinstahl explains, RDM has a direct relationship with water infiltration and plant growth. If a field has too much RDM from the season before it may lay over and create thatch, preventing water from penetrating the soil. Too little RDM creates bare soil conditions where water may sheet off versus sinking into the soil.

“The presence of bare soil on pastures limits biological activity and forage production because the soil chemistry is heavily altered,” Rubinstahl says. “Through active management and a good rotational grazing regime, it is more likely to have recommended levels of residual dry matter which leads to ideal water infiltration, more balanced soil chemistry and a healthy balance of sun and shade to create optimal spring time growing conditions. Many spring pasture plants evolved with disturbance, so balancing the rate and timing of impact is imperative to effective pasture management.”

However, as with any technique or technology, there are a number of considerations depending on the location of the ranch.

“Climate, current forage conditions and the timing of compost or seeding amendments are principal amongst these because ultimately spring pastures are products of the conditions before them,” Rubinstahl says. For best results, it is best to apply compost and to seed in the fall before the cool and wet season, therefore the soil amendments have time to settle before the hot dry season.

“It is also worth noting that protecting high impact areas where animals congregate or pinch points like creek crossings, fence lines or gates are worth extra focus,” Rubinstahl says. “Rock aprons around water troughs, a mobile feed rack and any practices to reduce trailing can be helpful in protecting soil quality, reducing muddy conditions and erosion.”

Looking Ahead
And while spring pasture improvements are on the top of your mind for many producers, it’s important to look ahead and pay attention to the genetic advancements taking place in the forage realm.

“As innovative plant breeders continue to push towards the maximized potential of cultivars that their programs generate, there will also be cattle producers that want the same from their herd, Denman says. “Don’t be afraid to focus on seed selection or mixes that might not be what Grandad would have done but could definitely open up the potential production capability of your operation. New ideas and approaches to the most basic practices are among the most important innovations that we in the agriculture business can focus on.”

By spreading compost, implementing rotational grazing, using adaptive management, installing cross fencing, or seeding with perennial species, these techniques can have a huge impact on the quality of the spring pasture conditions.  

One exciting innovation that Marin Agricultural Land Trust is starting to see in its community, is roll-able electric fence tumble wheels. These portable electric fence wheels allow for streamlined temporary cross-fence set up and work extremely well within a rotational grazing context.

“The fence consists of a number of electrified ‘wheels’ spaced across the pasture and the poly-wire running through the middle. This system really only works well on flat pastures, but the opportunities and efficiencies of the system are quite exciting,” Rubinstahl says. “There also seems to be an increase in the science, research and funding associated with carbon farm planning. There are dozens of Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)-approved practices that sequester carbon, increasing soil health and often have other ancillary benefits.”