Is it time to rejuvenate that old hay field or pasture?

Is it time to rejuvenate that old hay field or pasture?
by Bonnie Warnyca - 4, 2011

Dandelions, Canada thistle, pasture sage, gophers and moles and new grazing tolerant grass species coming in are all signs that pasture productivity is going downhill. Trying to get one more year out of that grass stand and extending the grazing season to try to reduce costs has caught up with many cattlemen.

"With so many years of low returns in the livestock business many producers couldn't afford to take depleted pastures or hay stands out of production and reseed others," admits Grant Lastiwka, Grazing and Forage Beef Specialist, Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development. "We're seeing many of these older forage fields that have lost their productivity. If cows are put out too early this spring or left out too long in the fall on these depleted stands, it will result in a drought situation production."

"We can definitely get more out of our pastures IF we manage them differently," continues Lastiwka. "We're seeing fields that are in survival mode and in order to begin the climb back to a healthier productivity, producers should try to plan for longer rest periods for this grass. If you aren't able to rent a little more pasture to give your existing pastures time to recover and get in better condition, then you may have to look at reducing numbers to achieve the same result. Or, it may be time to look at reseeding."

Re seeding is an opportunity to add a more desirable mix which can include more grazing productive grass species and adding some legume. Although these species do require more grazing management, they will produce more beef and grazing days in return.

When is it time to reseed? "If the species that was seeded is no longer present, then it may be time to start over," admits Lastiwka. "It's important at this juncture to determine if this new stand will be best utilized as a hay/future pasture or solely as a grazing pasture and seed accordingly."

"If you can't afford to reseed, then the next best thing is to rest it from grazing in the spring and don't "grub it off" in the fall. Some forage species you think are gone may surprise you and come back with this rest and deferred grazing management."

You just can't graze your way out of grass production reduction.

Lastiwka stresses that you can't consider low cost pasture management a "no cost" way of raising cattle. "It catches up to you," he warns. "But, it takes more than money to turn things around. The pieces needed to improve the system are attitude, willingness, knowledge, planning, labour and maybe even some dollars."

Planned grazers, or graziers using whole systems management (like Holistically Managed Grazing) have all proven how effective these shifts in grass management philosophies have allowed them to improve their grass stands, make production from year-to-year more stable, maintain their herds and maybe add, not subtract, cattle numbers.

Over a 7 to 10-year period the Western Forage Beef Group at Lacombe studied pasture management and extended grazing systems. The improved benefits they found came because of a number of management changes i.e. ongoing planning, wise use of costs, increased labour and knowledge dynamically being applied. The results showed that a more intensive grazing management system penciled out at about half the cost of traditional winter feeding methods. Work at Agriculture Canada at the Brandon Research Centre, over a similar 10-year period, showed that a summer legume/grass unfertilized pasture was about twice as productive as straight grass and more profitable.

Before spring turnout this season, take a look at your pastures with a more critical eye and put together a strategy for the best timing and use of each pasture, making sure that there is always an adequate rest period for growth recovery for each pasture.

"While rejuvenation will take time, the results will begin to show surprisingly quickly," suggests Lastiwka. "First of all, feeding just a little while longer until the spring grass is a little more established, will give you more time to assess the health of the grass. It's a 365-day grazing game. If you do not want to put more management time into your pastures, then at least start out grazing a little later. Also, plan to rest pastures or hay stands that have little regrowth in late summer or fall. This will allow plants on these stands to hold more snow and greater numbers of tillers to develop giving you some carryover and growth beginning earlier and more vigorously next spring."