Fall graze to stretch the grass season

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Source: Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs

Farmers with grazing livestock like cows, sheep and goats are learning to get many more days of grazing from their existing pastures. These folks are picking up on using stockpiled pasture to extend the grazing season until well after the snow comes! Can this work for you?

Here’s The Basic Idea

Select some land which you currently graze. It will need a natural windbreak area like a bush lot, or some simple board or plastic mesh windbreak fences. As a rough guideline, one acre of stockpiled pasture will provide 10 weeks of grazing for one beef cow in October-November-December.

Animal access to water is a key after freeze up. This can be a water source in a nearby barn, or a frost proof water bowl out on pasture (some types don’t require hydro) supplied by a trenched-in pipe. Water courses like creeks or ponds are poor choices from both the livestock and environmental sides of things.

Don’t graze this land in spring time. Let the grass grow and harvest the standing forage in mid-July, either with livestock or machinery. On grass stands, spreading some nitrogen fertilizer will promote vigorous regrowth, along with timely rains. Let the forage regrow until the first killing fall frost. Your stockpiled pasture is now ready for grazing. Waiting till after a killing frost ensures that the plants won’t try to regrow again after grazing. If they did, root energy reserves would be depleted and this would weaken the stand next spring.

Turn your livestock in and manage them like you would in the summer. You can rotate or strip graze, or just let them graze a large field. Since the grass isn’t regrowing much, back grazing isn’t an issue. But moving an electric poly fence down the field is a simple way of controlling grazing access and reducing wastage. However, after the snow comes, you will get a lot of trampling and wastage of forage if animal access to “new ground” isn’t controlled somehow. After new, soft snow is walked on, it freezes into ice clumps and really restricts the access of livestock to the grass beneath it. So by this time, a movable fence in front of the animals, or small paddocks, are highly recommended.

The Snow Factor

Cows and sheep have an amazing ability to root down through snow and find the grass. This is foraging! Trials at the New Liskeard Agricultural Research Station (NLARS) have shown that beef cows can graze effectively through 25 cm of snow. If depths get over 30 cm, forage intake is restricted.

Having some tall standing mature grass like timothy in the mix helps animals locate forage. Stems seem to act like flags and stimulate the grazing instinct, with animals following the stems down under the snow, where most of the high quality vegetative forage is preserved.

The Down Side

Hazards with fall grazing include punching up the sod during wet falls, and a tendency for slightly lower forage production the next summer. It’s best not to fall graze the same piece of ground more than 3 years in a row. And from the road it may look like livestock are getting only snowballs to eat, so you may get a call from a curious neighbour.

Research Highlights

Dry, pregnant beef cows at NLARS have consistently grazed into mid-December with no negative impact on the animals. And lactating cows with July calves fared well until the end of November. All animals were healthy, and stayed cleaner than barn housed contemporaries.

The Bottom Line

Fall grazing lowers the cost of production by reducing the need for stored feed and bedding, and lowering manure handling costs. No real magic, no big dollars for heavy metal. Just a different way to use what you already have.

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