As we are making our way through the winter, here is some food for thought for next summer.

Cool season pastures go through a bi-modal growth curve – a large amount of forage early in the season, a period very low growth from mid-June through mid-August and then a smaller bump in forage growth in late summer and early fall.  This is more exaggerated in the southwest where it is warmer and drier than the rest of Wisconsin.

A graphic presentation of the seasonal growth of pasture compared to livestock feed needs

In a normal year we expect and plan for some length of summer slump, this period when growth rates are lower than livestock consumption rates.  During and after the drought of 2012, producers were asking how they should have managed their pastures better or differently because of the weather.

The right pasture management is the same regardless of drought or no drought, there just less margin for error.

Grazing a paddock begins at a target height, let’s say 8-10”, we size the paddock such that it feeds a particular number of livestock for a period of 3-4 days, we move the livestock to the next paddock when there is about 4” of grass left behind, this is the residual, the un-grazed portion.  We do not return livestock to this paddock until it has recovered.  Recovery in this example is 8-10”. In Spring, recovery may be as little as 16 days, in a normal summer maybe it’s 24-30 days, under drought maybe 45-60 days.

This residual is the plant factory, a savings account of stored energy the plant has invested into its’ own future survival.  How much of the savings account of energy is depleted from over grazing (below 4”) impacts how delayed or reduced the building process (growing new leaf area) is.

The more leaf area the greater the amount of sunlight the plant can capture the more energy it can store. When we have 8-10” of leaf or more, sunlight is excluded from the soil surface.  The shade on the soil created by this leaf area creates a damp, micro climate beneath the plant.  In 2012, I was reading 100°F soil temperatures at 2” soil depth in over grazed paddocks, yet, taller paddocks were still at 80°.  At 77°, root growth stops on cool season grasses, at 90°, shoot growth stops.  If our management causes a plant to stop growing, how long will it take to recover?

In a more normal summer, this 20° temperature spread seems to hold true, and creates conditions that allow plants to thrive, not simply survive.   Warmer soil loses more moisture to evaporation than cool soil.  Wind on exposed soil dries our soil even further, yet another way that taller forage conserves moisture.

What’s the big deal?   Grazing research at the USDA/ARS – Dairy Forage Research Center demonstrates if we over graze from mid-June to August, has the single greatest reduction in fall pasture growth.  Every drought ends with a rain, if we have protected our residual through summer, the plant will rapidly respond with a period of vigorous regrowth into Fall.

Overgrazed pasture may turn slightly green once rains return, but yield is compromised.

When the next paddock is not ready for grazing (not 8-10” or whatever your target height is) your choices are:  reduce feed demand or increase supply.  When the weather warrants it, selling livestock or feeding stored feeds in summer is a strategic management decision, if it is to avoid grazing paddocks before paddocks have fully recovered.   Managing to keep forage residual intact helps maintains plant vigor and allows for rapid regrowth once some rains return.

In most summers, our climate is a bit more forgiving in terms of moisture and temperature, close to right management is often quite good.  In drought like 2012, there was no margin for error in how to manage pastures.   In drought, consider leaving 5”-6” residual.

Comfortable livestock produce more, comfortable plants do too.