Annual calendar for pastures
Published in Dairy Star January 17, 2009
Many of us make resolutions or use a calendar for planning the coming year when January rolls around. A planning calendar is especially useful with a grazing system as needs and opportunities change month by month. Even though green pastures filled with grazing bovines are months away, it isn’t too early to plan ahead.
Figure 1. Paddocks for a rotational grazing system
January – February: This is a good time to study new developments in forage varieties by checking out the 2009 Minnesota Varietal Trials Results. The Wisconsin Grazing Conference happens in February. If animals are being wintered on pasture, land fertilizer can be provided by moving feeding sites to encourage uniform distribution of manure. It’s not too late to review the situation of the pastures following the past grazing season. Much of the state suffered from a third consecutive year of drought leaving bare patches and weed proliferation that needs to be brought under control. Figure 1 displays an approach to pasture design when a farm has variable terrain.
March: If seed isn’t ordered for frost seeding, planned renovation or new pasture development, it should be done before supplies are reduced. Frost seeding needs to be completed before the pastures are muddy to achieve best soil seed contact. Check fences and water lines for damage and begin repairs. Waste feed and manure accumulation can be distributed. If there is a lot of mud after a winter of heavy snowfall, a sacrifice area to hold cattle may need to be installed.
April: Some grazing is usually possible by mid- to late-April, but the grazing plan should provide for very rapid moves, completing a cycle in two weeks or less. If your pastures lack legumes, a spring application of nitrogen may be needed to jump start the grasses. Schedule replacement of broken posts and other equipment.
May: Pastures change from very slow growth to maximum growth during June. Monitor all pastures weekly to determine appropriate supplementation early in the month and to identify areas of the pasture that may need to be harvested for hay later in the month. Decisions made in May determine the sequencing of grazing moves to have a continuous supply of high quality forage through the summer. During May the rotation cycle should be extended to 21+ days. Most renovation seeding will be done in early May. Key points in pasture development include choice of adapted varieties and species that will save you money by persisting for several years, adding legumes to provide nitrogen, and considering both quality and yield potential.
Figure 2. Planning for a grazing cycle
June: Continue to schedule a weekly walk over all the pastures as the rotation cycle extends to 28 to 31 days and surplus forage is harvested. Watch for new problem areas and maintain a pasture wedge vision to stabilize supply as shown in Figure 2. If growth becomes uneven or plants develop seed heads, clipping or following the cows closely with heifers will help keep the appropriate pasture sequence.
July: By mid-summer, given appropriate moisture and fertility, the length of a rotation should have stabilized to about 28 days. Watch for signs of nitrogen deficiency and supplement with an appropriate fertilizer material to maintain pasture production. Plan for changes in soil moisture, rate of regrowth, animal needs and weed pressure. If you want to extend the grazing season, a stockpile should be started before the end of July. In western Minnesota, we often need to increase animal feed supplements in July.
August: If pasture growth is declining, the length of the grazing cycle will need to be increased to 35 days in order to avoid overgrazing and loss of pasture productivity. This may be a time to utilize annuals to fill the gap in pasture growth. If you want a spring calving herd, you’ll need to be very aggressive in completing breeding by State Fair time.
September: Monitor weeds, especially thistles, to determine a course of action. If you’ve managed rotations and been pleased with adequate moisture, the grass should be thick with few serious weeds. Plan for the emergence of a new pest – the pocket gopher – and find an ambitious trapper for the fall season. Length of rotation may need to be extended to 42 days or even longer.
October – November: Prepare for winter and spring by maintaining fences, lanes and watering systems. Inventory quality and quantity of stored forage to sell excess or purchase shortages. If feeding on pasture, make a plan that includes feeding areas that are moved where fertility of manure is best utilized.
December: Finally, you’ve got a month to relax.