Spring Management of Cool Season Pastures

— Written By and last updated by Elisabeth Purser
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Our cool season pastures are starting to green up as we begin to see warmer weather. How do we need to handle spring pastures to start off a good growing season? 

It can be so tempting to send our animals out on pastures at the first signs of new spring growth. After a winter of feeding (and paying for) hay, it might seem like a logical choice to utilize the fresh growth. However, make sure you wait for the forage to reach the proper grazing height. For cool season grasses like fescue and orchard grass, this ideal height is usually around 6 inches in the spring. Waiting for the plants to reach the right height prevents livestock from overgrazing too quickly and gives the plant a chance to recover in order to produce more grazable biomass throughout the season. Grazing too short can stunt the grass and prevent it from recovering quickly. This can hurt the long-term productivity of the stand for the growing season.

On the flip side, if you don’t graze your forages enough throughout the spring, it can enter the reproductive phase, which lowers nutritional quality. Plants in the vegetative stage will be more digestible with higher crude protein and total digestible nutrients. Keeping the forage grazed or mowed down uniformly throughout the spring can help keep plants in the vegetative stage. 

If your pasture was established in the fall, you want to be extra careful to not overgraze. Depending on how well your stand established over the fall and winter, there may be opportunity to do some light grazing. This can encourage the plants to tiller, which will result in a thicker stand. You can also accomplish this by mowing at a height of around 5 inches. Do not let the livestock graze too long, or leave them out on the pasture long enough they start to tear up the new forage. 

Grass in Pasture

March is a good time to consider fertilizing your cool season pastures. Adding fertilizer in the spring helps encourage growth during the spring growth peak. Nitrogen is particularly mobile in the soil; therefore, it is a good idea to apply a portion of the recommended amount in the spring to target that spring growth curve. 

Finally, consider weed management. Spring is the perfect time to start looking for summer weeds. Control is usually best accomplished when weeds are small and immature. If you’ve had issues with specific weeds in the past, scout your pastures frequently for signs of the pesky weeds. If using chemical control, be sure to follow all label directions and make sure the product you’ve selected is labeled for the weeds you are targeting. 

By taking care of your pastures this spring, you will help set yourself up for a better grazing season this year.