One of the most important grazing management decisions producers make is selecting a start date for grazing tame pasture and native range. Starting grazing too early reduces plant leaf area for photosynthesis, plant vigor is reduced, stands are thinned, total forage production is lowered, and disease, insect and weed infestations are increased. While starting grazing too late increases forage loss and waste through trampling or reduced palatability, and increases the presence of exotic cool-season grasses such as Kentucky bluegrass and smooth bromegrass.
Understanding the difference between plant development and plant growth is important for determining grazing readiness and we are most interested in the number of leaves formed on the plant. Grazing readiness for most domesticated pasture is at the 3-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, such as crested wheatgrass and smooth brome, reach grazing readiness two to four weeks earlier than native range, permitting grazing in late April to early May. However, this year we will likely see a delay in grazing readiness especially if pastures were overgrazed in 2020.
Some ways to avoid grazing native range prior to grazing readiness would be to graze domesticated grass pastures, such as crested wheatgrass and smooth brome in May or provide supplemental forage to livestock on domesticated pasture or hay land. Other strategies would be to use winter annuals for early spring grazing or haying or to continue dry lot feeding in May.
Due to the drought conditions we have been experiencing since fall 2020, producers should expect at least 20% to 25% decline in forage production this year. Monitoring the grazing readiness of your pastures prior to turnout is important and monitoring the developmental stage of key grass species is the most reliable method. If grazing starts at the proper developmental stage, the plants will be more tolerant of grazing stress and will maintain the higher vigor needed to continue forage production during the grazing season and following years. The ecological and economic impacts of grazing native rangeland prior to grazing readiness may lead to years of recovery if livestock are allowed to overgraze.
To learn more about how to identify key grass species and grazing readiness, attend the Drought Workshop that will be held May 24 in New Salem.
For more information on determining grazing readiness and managing drought, contact the Morton County Extension Office or check out the following NDSU Extension publications:
• Determining Grazing Readiness for Native and Tame Pastures
• Ranchers Guide to Grassland Management IV
• Strategies for Managing Drought in the Northern Plains
Upcoming NDSU Extension events
Call 701-667-3342 for help gaining access to virtual events or visit www.ag.ndsu.edu/mortoncountyextension for more information.
Monday and April 12: Spring Fever Garden Forum, 6:30-8:30 pm, in-person or online.
April 14: Coping Skills for Kids, Noon, webinar.
April 16 and 17: Dakota Garden Expo, 3-8 p.m. April 16 and 9 a.m.-4 p.m. April 17, Bismarck Event Center.
Renae Gress is an agriculture and natural resources extension agent with NDSU Extension/Morton County.