Extreme mud in winter-feeding areas and early pasture growth entices cattle farmers to turn cattle on to pasture earlier than they should, says Zac Erwin, University of Missouri Extension field specialist in livestock. Unusually warm temperatures in late February and March have accelerated grass growth in Northeast Missouri pastures.
While the grass looks good from across the fence, Valerie Tate, Field Specialist in Agronomy, warns turning livestock on pasture too early in the grazing season will damage early growth and lead to less production later in the grazing season. According to Tate, every inch of grass growth adds 200-300 pounds of dry matter per acre. Tate recommends waiting for cool-season grass pastures to reach eight inches in height and graze no shorter than four inches. This will help avoid damage to the roots which dramatically slows regrowth.
Erwin adds that while there may look like a lot of forage in the pasture; a 1200-pound lactating cow requires around 30-32 pounds of dry matter intake per day. If you do the math, 50 head of cows will consume approximately 1,500 pounds of dry matter per day, approximately 5-6 inches of pasture growth.
Tate stresses that beef farmers should confine cattle to winter-feeding or sacrifice areas to ensure grass will remain productive throughout the grazing season. She adds that if you have a managed grazing system in place to control animal grazing and give the forage appropriate rest periods, you can generally turn out sooner in the spring compared to non-managed systems. The key is to “take half - leave half” of the available forage. Maintaining half of the leaf area to avoid damaging the plant roots will keep roots actively growing, resulting in more rapid pasture recovery. You can learn more about better pasture management at Missouri Grazing Schools. Grazing schools offered throughout Missouri can be found at https://mofgc.org/grazing-schools/.
Tate and Erwin are part of the NRCS+MU Grasslands Management project. The focus of the project is sustaining and improving grassland production in the State of Missouri. Learn more about this project at https://extension2.missouri.edu/programs/nrcs-mu-grasslands-project.