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Consider Alternatives to Early Grazing

April 5, 2019

The snowy, frigid winter may have left cattle producers short on forage for their livestock, and they are itching to get the cattle out on grass.

“Proceed with caution when turning livestock out on range and pasture,” advises Miranda Meehan, North Dakota State University Extension livestock environmental stewardship specialist. “The long, cold winter may result in a delay in grazing readiness, especially considering the cool temperatures we have experienced so far this spring. Grazing too early in the spring can result in decreased total forage production for the entire grazing season.”

Grazing before grass plants reach the appropriate stage of growth for grazing readiness causes a reduction in herbage production, which can reduce the recommended stocking rate and/or animal performance, she adds. Grazing readiness for most domesticated pasture, such as crested wheatgrass and smooth brome grass, is at the three-leaf stage, whereas grazing readiness for most native range grasses is the 3 1/2-leaf stage.

In North Dakota, the recommended time to begin grazing native range is mid to late May, which coincides with grazing readiness in most cool-season native range grasses. Domesticated grass pastures reach grazing readiness two to four weeks earlier than native range, permitting grazing in late April to early May. However, a pilot project NDSU Extension conducted in 2017 and 2018 found the exact dates varied widely across the state, reinforcing the importance of making decisions based on monitoring data and not calendar dates.

Many livestock operators are looking for strategies to provide feed for their animals to replace harvested feeds while delaying turnout to native rangeland until sufficient growth occurs.

“One alternative is grazing domesticated grass pastures in May,” says Kevin Sedivec, NDSU Extension rangeland management specialist. “This is the best-case scenario because it eliminates damage to native rangeland and still allows producers to turn cattle out on pasture by early May.”

If livestock producers do not have domesticated grass, they could rent domesticated grass pasture for May or graze Conservation Reserve Program (CPR) lands that no longer are under contract in May and June.

Crested wheatgrass is the only domesticated grass pasture ready to be grazed by early May. Smooth bromegrass and meadow bromegrass typically are grazing-ready by mid-May, while most CRP lands, which include grasses such as intermediate and pubescent wheatgrass, are ready for grazing by late May, according to Sedivec.

“The management decision will be whether to start grazing crested wheatgrass early with moderate stocking rates for the entire spring period or wait until the first week of May, when the growth can keep up with the higher customary stocking rate,” he says.

Native rangeland grazed prior to grazing readiness may take years to recover ecologically and economically if livestock are allowed to overgraze. However, ranchers who have exhausted feed supplies and cannot purchase feed, or do not have tame grass pastures established will need to put their livestock on native pasture.

Here are factors to consider when selecting native pasture for early grazing:

  • Plant species composition – Select pastures that are heavily invaded by non-native cool-season grass such as smooth brome and Kentucky bluegrass rather than pastures dominated by native species. These non-native cool-season grasses start growing earlier in the season than native species and typical are ready to be grazed by mid-May. If pastures are not heavily invaded by non-native species, select pastures that are dominated by native cool-season species that reach the three-leaf stage in late May/early June instead of those dominated by native warm-season species that do not reach the three-leaf stage until late June.
  • Ability of the plant community to recover from disturbance – A number of factors influence the community’s ability to recover from disturbance. Plant communities associated with soils that have a higher water-holding capacity and are in areas that receive additional water are better able to withstand drought conditions than communities on droughty soils. Similarly, native plant communities that contain a larger variety of species are better able to respond to disturbance.
  • Grazing management history of native pastures – Give priority to pastures that were not grazed or only lightly grazed the previous growing season. This technique has flaws because livestock still will target lush new growth; however, they also will consume the old growth from the previous year. The new growth will be high in crude protein (18 to 23 percent) and water content (75 to 80 percent), and low in fiber content (20 to 30 percent). If old growth is not available to provide a dry filler and fiber, livestock may not consume adequate dry matter.

“These early grazed pastures will need to be rested throughout the summer months,” Meehan says. “However, if grazing is not severe, the pastures could have some use again in the fall, depending on summer moisture.”

For more information on early grazing, contact your county Extension office or visit for the NDSU Extension publication “Ranchers Guide to Grassland Management IV.”

Source: North Dakota State University