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Spring Grazing of Winter Annuals

By Don Ball

While it may seem that grazing management of winter annual pastures should be less important in spring when there is normally more pasture forage available than at most other times of year, this is not necessarily the case. Furthermore, an argument can be made that grazing management of winter annuals may be especially important in spring 2007.

It is an unfortunate truth that a great deal of high quality forage of winter annuals goes to waste in Alabama each spring as a result of poor grazing management. It is likely that in many cases, livestock producers who allow these wastes to occur are not even fully aware of how large the losses are. Overgrazing is a more common and harmful problem, but the problem being referred to here is undergrazing.

Undergrazing of winter annuals in spring tends to occur because these pastures produce more forage in spring than at any other time. Thus, stocking rates that were suitable for winter annual pastures in autumn and winter quickly become inadequate during spring. It is possible to overgraze any type of pasture, of course, but there is normally little danger of this on most winter annual pastures in spring in Alabama unless a pasture is soft and wet enough that extreme trampling damage occurs.

There are several good reasons for avoiding undergrazing of winter annuals in spring. One is that where a large amount of forage is allowed to accumulate, the animals will physically waste much of it by trampling and fouling. Keeping a pasture grazed down minimizes these losses. Another is that where clovers or other legumes are included in a winter annual mixture, they will tend to be shaded by taller-growing grasses. In addition, the grazing season of a winter annual pasture can be extended a little longer if it is kept grazed down.

What can a livestock producer do when winter annual pasture begins to exceed what animals can consume? One approach could be to increase the stocking rate. For example, a stocker cattle operator might put some brood cows on his winter grazing. Another approach (depending on market conditions) could be to buy some additional animals to help utilize the excess forage growth.

Another remedy could be to reduce the amount of pasture to which the animals have access. This can be as easy as closing a gate or erecting an electric fence. In addition to reducing forage waste, concentrating livestock can help ensure that the quality of the forage in the area being grazed will remain high and also presents the option of harvesting the forage that accumulates in the ungrazed areas as hay or silage. Even though spring is often not a good time to put up forage, the years when it is possible to do this can be of great benefit because of the potentially excellent quality of hay or silage made from winter annuals.

In order for livestock to benefit from forage, they have to consume it. Furthermore, in order for livestock to obtain maximum benefit from forage consumed, it must be consumed while the quality is high. It is great to obtain good stands of winter annuals and to manage to obtain forage growth from them. However, it is more difficult and even more admirable to obtain maximum or near-maximum benefit from the forage produced by exercising grazing management that minimizes waste.

The reason grazing management may be especially valuable in spring 2007 is that severe drought in 2006 resulted in many perennial pastures being overgrazed, which undoubtedly weakened pasture grasses. Therefore, many pastures in Alabama probably need some TLC (tender loving care) at present. Here is a primary point of this article: it will be especially beneficial to 

delay grazing perennial pastures this spring until they have had a chance to make a few inches of forage growth that will allow them to replenish food reserves in the plant roots.

If you have one or more fields of winter annuals that you planted on a prepared seedbed to help you get your livestock through the winter, good grazing management that maximizes pasture forage utilization may help delay putting animals on perennial grass pastures on your farm. If you overseeded perennial pastures with winter annuals, good grazing management can allow you to avoid excessive shading of the perennial grass by the winter annuals, and also increase pasture forage utilization that hopefully will help avoid overgrazing the perennial forage crops in the overseeded pastures.

Don Ball is an Extension Forage Crop Agronomist with Auburn University.



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Date Last Updated January, 2006