With the early spring, some farmers, ranchers, and acreage owners are turning out livestock four to six weeks earlier than usual.
“Some of the turnouts are due to a lack of feed, and for others it is necessary to get the cows out of the corrals,” said provincial beef and forage specialist Barry Yaremcio.
Under preferred conditions, pasture grasses should be allowed to develop to the three- to four-leaf stage before being grazed to allow them to replenish nutrients required by the root system. Grazing too early draws down root reserves and slows regrowth, eventually killing the plant.
“Pastures that were overgrazed last year will take two to four weeks longer to develop this spring because of stresses caused by grazing, dry conditions and, in some areas, high numbers of grasshoppers,” said Yaremcio.
Last year’s stresses will also reduce the number of tillers sprouting this spring, and diminish plant vigour which together will decrease yield potential this year.
Putting animals onto pastures with minimal spring growth restricts the amount of forage an animal can consume and causes them to lose body condition. Females that lose body condition cannot produce as much milk and this reduces growth rates of the offspring.
“The impact to the breeding female is that it takes longer for the animal to cycle, and first-service conception rates are impaired,” said Yaremcio. “As a result, these animals cannot maintain a high level of reproductive efficiency.”
If possible, provide supplemental feeds such as hay, greenfeed, silage, grain, or commercial pellets to reduce demands on the pasture. In addition, ensure that mineral and trace mineral supplementation programs are continued.
Calves more than 45 to 50 days of age can be fed a 16 per cent protein creep ration. A “homegrown” creep can be one-third oats, one-third barley, and one-third peas (the peas can be screenings from local seed-cleaning plants). Protein is required by young animals to maintain growth rates, including the development of bone and muscle. If fed only an energy feed such as oats, the extra energy will create fat, and the animals will not frame out properly. Calves under 700 pounds can be fed whole grains without a loss in efficiency.
In the end, don’t underestimate the benefits of creep feed, said Yaremcio.
“Depending on conditions, a creep feed can result in 75 to 150 pounds of additional gain.”
If there is no choice but to turn animals out, use a “sacrifice pasture” to minimize the impact on total forage production. This is because for every day the cows are turned out early in the spring, fall grazing can be reduced by as much as three days.
Other alternatives include rotational grazing or strip grazing pastures to have short-duration/high-intensity grazing events. Move the animals into a new area when 50 per cent of the growth is grazed off. If possible, provide a minimum recovery period of 30 days.
Soil test to determine fertility available to the forages. If growing conditions are favourable, apply fertilizer in the spring or early on in the growing season (when the rains come).
Plants that were overgrazed and stressed going into last winter, and continue to be stressed this year, are less likely to survive the winter.
“If you treat your pastures and grasses well, with adequate rest and ample time to recharge root reserve, they will pay you back with higher cattle gains and increased pasture longevity and productivity,” said Yaremcio. “If you graze too early, or before there is sufficient regrowth, you get short-term pasture and long-term losses to your pocketbook.”