Cows Without Legs, Part 2: Forage Management

| 9/22/2015 9:56:00 AM

Please note that I am writing about my personal experiences outlined in Part 1, which take place in the northeast U.S. with mob-grazed beef cattle. Some of the ideas below are not applicable to the Western states, where grass species and range management tactics are very different. I am also not addressing dairy farms or irrigated pastures. However, I firmly believe that the strategy described below works. I have observed its successful implementation on numerous farms from Missouri to New York.

Forage Recovery Management

Allow your grass to get tall enough to hide cows’ legs.

It’s common knowledge that short, vegetative grass is more digestible than mature, taller grass. For this reason, many agriculture professionals recommend a short grazing rotation (30-40 days). I personally disagree with this practice, in favor of tall grass grazing. By “tall grass”, I am referring to Eastern cool-season perennial forages such as orchard grass and tall fescue, grown to at least 10 inches between grazings.

My reasoning for using tall grasses is as follows. You can expect the root system of a grass plant to mirror the size you allow its top growth to reach. That means that a grass sward you regularly let grow to 12 inches has roots about 12 inches deep. If you graze your grass down to 2-inch stubble all the time, the root system will degrade and become very shallow. That’s fine if you could guarantee 2 inches of rain every week.

But when a drought hits (and it will!), short grass with short roots and no stored nutrient bank can’t survive. Nonexistent grass is not digestible at all! In addition, no trampling of forage mass (for decay into soil-building organic matter) can occur unless grass is allowed to reach or surpass about 10 inches in height. You can definitely forget stockpiling winter feed if you’re grazing into the dirt. Say hello to the hay bills.

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