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Topics : Pastures : Strategies for Extending the Grazing Season

Strategies for Extending the Grazing Season

Additional pasture information via the Forage Information System (FIS)


The use of winter cereal crops such as wheat, barley, rye, or triticale can provide fall or early winter grazing opportunities. However, certain management practices need to be modified from what is normally done for grain production. When small grains are to be used for grazing, plant them three to four weeks earlier than for grain production. Increase the seeding rate to 3 bu/acre and apply nitrogen at the rate of 40 lbs/acre at planting time.

If the small grains are being planted only for pasture (with no subsequent grain harvest), there may be some benefit to mixing small grains species. This has been beneficial in the southeast United States, where small grains pastures are quite common. Mixing species of rye, wheat, barley, or triticale can help extend the grazing period and reduce the tendency for a strong peak growth period in the spring.

Grazing Management

With adequate fall moisture, grazing should be available from October through December and then again in early spring. One acre of properly fertilized and managed small grains should support one animal unit (1,000 lb animal) on a limited grazing basis.

Stocking rate and time of grazing will be somewhat determined by the intended use of the crop. If you are planning to take a silage or grain harvest, grazing should only be moderate. Heavy grazing can reduce grain yields. Moderate grazing in the fall will not result in significant silage or grain losses provided that moisture and soil fertility are adequate. In fact, fall pasturing can be beneficial where the small grain was seeded early and has made excessive growth.

Spring grazing may be started when growth resumes. If a grain or silage crop is to be harvested, grazing should be discontinued when the plants start to grow erect, just before jointing (growth stage 6). Small grains plants will be injured by grazing at any time after their growing points are above the ground.

Temporary electric fencing should provide a practical way to manage these pastures. Although small grains can be continuously grazed, a rotational or strip grazing practice may allow a higher carrying capacity (less wastage from trampling). Small grains pasture is lush, high in protein, and low in fiber during most of the fall grazing period. Crude protein levels normally range from 15 percent to 34 percent of dry matter, making this forage an excellent protein supplement for many classes of livestock.

Animal Health Precautions

Grass tetany can occur when small grains forage is grazed by cows about to calve or those which have recently calved. This usually occurs in the spring. It is recommended that animal diets be supplemented with a mineral mix containing magnesium. Lactating dairy cows that are grazing small grain pasture should receive an additional 1 ounce of magnesium oxide/cow/day.

There is a risk of nitrate poisoning if animals graze rapidly growing and recently fertilized small grains pasture. Avoid this situation by applying nitrogen fertilizer at planting time or well before the intended grazing period.

Although rare, bloat may also be a health risk when animals graze small grains. This most likely will occur when animals are first turned onto pasture in early spring and gorge themselves with the lush forage. Bloat can be prevented by feeding some stored forage just before turning the animals onto the pasture.