Management starts prior establishment
- Soil testing ahead of time is crucial to apply lime and nutrients based on the soil report
- The use of certified, high-quality seeds improves establishment and decreases the chances of introduction of weeds in the area
- Proper land preparation is crucial if you use a clean seedbed or interesting (or overseeding, both terms are used) perennial pasture with cool-season forages. In the latter, mowing or grazing down to 2” will help to remove the excessive forage mass and improve the chances of proper seed-soil contact
- Calibrate your planting equipment correctly and use proper seed depth
At the establishment, plan your fertilizer applications for the range of forage production you are planning on getting. For nitrogen (N) fertilizer, it is a good practice to split the total rate of the season into 2-3 applications to be conducted after grazing events in a specific area, to make sure that the plant will be able to optimize the use of N while also decreasing issues with leaching and runoff.
Making sure that the forages are given enough time to grow and establish is crucial before starting grazing. If grazed too early, plants will not have enough energy stored, and their root systems may not be well developed. After removing the leaves, plants will struggle to regrow in both cases, which can slow down the establishment and compromise the persistence of those plants in the stand. The time you can start grazing your pastures will depend on the varieties used, planting date, farm location, and fertility applied. Then, generally, most producers manage their cool-season pastures under rotational or strip grazing to optimize the use and quality of the forage.
In terms of recommendations, for small grains, for example, a general rule of thumb is to start grazing around 10-12” and end grazing around 4-5” stubble height. The target ‘begin’ and ‘end’ grazing stubble heights will depend on the forage or mixtures used on your pastures. It is a good practice always to estimate the forage mass available on your pasture and adjust the stocking rate needed to optimize the use and the regrowth of forages. When we leave more behind, we may have a more rapid regrowth. However, once most cool-season forages are annual species, we can often manage them under more intensive grazing strategies because they will not persist for the next season.
One exception may be when we use legumes because it is important to remember that they require a proper balance between frequency and intensity of grazing to give the legumes better chances to recover and persist in the pasture over time. In legume-grasses mixtures, we will need to adequate the management we will be using to avoid shading and competition for nutrients while allowing the legume to establish well to be able to fix N and incorporate it back into the forage system. It is also important to remember that when we expose animals to legumes for the first time, we need to make sure to turn them in the area gradually over time, do not starve animals, and always let them have access to hay or grass to balance out the consumption while grazing legumes to avoid issues with bloat.