Skip to Main navigation Skip to Left navigation Skip to Main content Skip to Footer

University of Minnesota Extension

Extension > Agriculture > Forage Production > Utilization > Plan your forage supply for summer grazing

Print Icon Email Icon Share Icon

Plan your forage supply for summer grazing

Brad Heins, University of Minnesota

Pasture is the primary source of forage for organic dairies, and organic livestock production regulations require a minimum of 120 days grazing per animal. In the northern U.S., this requirement is typically met by a May to October grazing season, and profitability depends on pastures that provide a season-long supply of high quality forage.

Spring and summer are just around the corner. This is a good time to start thinking about your pasture forage supply for grazing this summer. First, we will briefly provide results from a study where we evaluated pasture forage quality on Minnesota dairy farms, and then, we will discuss selecting pasture species when renovating a pasture.

Forage quality assessment

Nine Minnesota grazing dairy farms were monitored in a study that measured monthly changes in the forage quality of pastures over a two-year period. Farms were from a wide geographical area across Minnesota and represented a range in herd size, pasture size, and pasture management.

Across the nine farms, spring pasture dry matter (23.96%) was higher than summer (23.52%) and fall (19.76%) pasture dry matter (Table 1). Seasonal average crude protein concentrations were 21.01%, 20.11% and 23.93% for spring, summer, and fall. NDF concentration in the pasture forage was different for spring, summer, and fall grazing. Seasonal NDF concentrations were 46.63%, 49.25%, and 45.97% for spring, summer, and fall, respectively.

Table 1. Average pasture forage quality measures monitored
monthly over a two-year period on nine Minnesota farms1.

Time Dry matter Crude protein NDF
percent (%)
Spring 23.96a 21.01b 46.63a
Summer 23.52ab 20.11b 49.25b
Fall 19.76b 23.93a 45.97a
1Means in the same column followed by the same letter are not significantly different at the p<0.05 level.

Pasture forage quality changes across the grazing season; therefore, a producer should test forage quality throughout the grazing season to determine whether livestock may need to be supplemented or pastures need to be renovated to improve the forage quality. Producers should supply livestock with consistent forage quality from the pasture. Knowing the quality of forage in pasture will help determine grazing management of livestock.

Species selection for pasture renovation

Monoculture vs. diversity

Compared to monocultures, diversity reduces risks associated with loss of any single pasture species, provides for variable resource use within a field, supplies potentially more uniform biomass during the growing season, and improves soil health.

Pasture diversity can be increased by adding grasses and forbs and by increasing numbers of species within grasses and forbs. An example is to grow nitrogen-fixing legumes with grasses. Although legumes supply nitrogen to grasses and provide a higher energy feedstuff than grasses, legumes are generally less persistent and require higher levels of soil fertility than grasses. Increases in diversity in a farm's forage base can be achieved by planting mixtures in individual pastures, and by planting separate pastures with different species.

Optimum number of species

There are a lot of disagreements regarding the ideal number of species to include in pasture mixtures. Most agronomic guidelines recommend the use of a small number of species in grazed mixtures. Past research in the Northeast United States found that six to nine grass species were more productive than a white clover-orchardgrass mixture.

Selecting grass species

When selecting pasture grass species, producers should consider yield potential, palatability, survival of grasses. Producers should select species that are winter hardy, have good seasonal yield distribution, and are rust resistant. Quite possibly, variety is as important as or more important than specie choice.

At the West Central Research and Outreach Center, in Morris, the performance of dairy cows grazing two unique pasture systems designed to maximize seasonal forage yield and quality and extend the grazing season are being measured:

Regional differences in soil fertility and rainfall may favor different pasture species in other locations.

Our current pasture species mixtures and seeding rates are as follows:

  1. Perennial ryegrass (4 lb), White clover (2 lb), Red clover (3 lb), and Chicory (2 lb);
  2. Orchardgrass (3 lb), Meadow Fescue (6 lb), Chicory (1 lb), Alfalfa (10 lb); and
  3. Perennial ryegrass (3 lb), Meadow Fescue (8 lb), White clover (4 lb), Red clover (2 lb), and Chicory (1 lb)

Grazing systems using these different approaches to achieve diversity require biological, environmental and economic analysis. In summary, pasture management and forage species selection within a farm can influence the forage quality of pasture forage for grazing dairy animals.

Copyright © 2016 Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved.

  • © Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved.
  • The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer. Privacy