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Indiana Grazing Bites - February 2024

Publish Date
Victor Shelton, Indiana NRCS State Agronomist discusses pasture management practices with Tom Kruer.

Victor Shelton is a retired Agronomist/Grazing Specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).  He continues to write Grazing Bites in his spare time from his property in southwest Indiana.   

Grazing Stick
Should you still be grazing stockpiled forage?

I’d quickly take one of the hottest weeks in the summer over some of the frigid weather we have seen this winter. My wife just hopes that the long, icy-cold period was long enough to set back the stink bugs still hanging around. 

Cold weather can have some advantages, especially after some of the rains we received lately.  If you are having to concentrate livestock or are wanting to graze wet or saturated ground, frozen ground or free concrete has some advantages. 

If you are still grazing stockpiled forage, frozen ground helps to protect the soil surface and reduce compaction from hooves.  In reality, if you have a good stand of stockpile, it has to get almost bitter cold to freeze that ground.  The blanket of forage serves as pretty good insulation.  Like I’ve said before, if I have to dig a hole in the wintertime, I’m for sure going to dig where I have heavy sod, it is most likely not frozen. 

On the contrary, ground that has little cover left will freeze quicker and deeper.  It will also be more susceptible to pugging and compaction when grazed or walked on when thawed out and wet. 

I’ve had a few people asking if they should go ahead and graze some stockpile that they were not able to graze earlier.  This invokes the questions, “How much forage is there and how will it be managed?”  If the soil is saturated with water and you don’t have an enormous amount of grazable vegetation present, you will probably do more harm than good.

If the soil is frozen, then perhaps even a meager amount of 3,000 pounds of forage per acre might be worth pursuing, but it would also make a great field to possibly graze early in the rotation in the spring because it will certainly rebound quickly and have ample amounts of soil protection and dry matter after the initial green-up.  You won’t get that from fields that were grazed tighter - they will be slower to rebound.

Fields with quite a bit more than 3,000 pounds of stockpile per acre are pretty rare this time around.  But, if you did have some, the more vegetative cover that you have, the more resilient the field will be.  Heavy stockpile will have more and deeper root systems, helping to create more resilient structure and more soil surface protection unless under very saturated conditions. 

You might ask how to estimate available forage.  If you took a grazing stick or yardstick and measured the forage height in the potential field and measured it from the ground to a compressed height and multiplied that by 250 for normal dense stand, you would get a quick estimate of the total pounds of dry matter present.

It’s best to use a “compressed” height to be more accurate. I usually have a light clipboard with me and lay it on top of the forage and measure below that.  You will quickly note that it takes quite a bit of standing forage to be even 3,000 pounds.  Not all of that will be desirable or grazable, nor should it be. 

If you want a more accurate estimate of the vegetation present, you can make yourself a clipping frame that is approximately 12 x 23 inches or 1.92 square feet.  Lay that frame on the ground and clip the forage that is within the frame and place it in a pre-weighed paper bag.  If time allows, set the bag of forage in a warm dry spot until the forage is air dry – this normally takes several days depending on conditions.  You can also carefully dry the forage in a microwave, but this too is time consuming, a bit precarious, and also usually annoys my wife if done in the kitchen.

Once the forage is dry, weigh the sample in grams.  If you don’t have a gram scale, weigh it in ounces and multiply it by 28.35 to get grams.  Multiply the grams of dry weight by 50 and you have an estimate of total pounds per acre of dry matter.  I’ve only seen one field since December that was over 3,000 pounds.

Pastures that are grazed or treaded on by livestock during the winter, especially when the ground is not frozen and saturated, will usually have quite a bit of sod disturbance that will not only increase compaction, reduce desirable plant density, and increase opportunities for annual weeds, but also increase the likelihood of erosion.  Be careful grazing this winter, especially after such a dry, lower production fall.

We should still have some good opportunities to get a little fresh snow which is ideal to frost-seed legumes into.  I especially like it because I can see my tracks and know where I’ve been and get a better pattern with the seeder.  With most fields having slightly less forage than usual left behind, frost seeding some clover into these fields and getting a good stand should be pretty easily done. 

Slightly higher seeding rates are best for frost seeding than for conventional seeding.  White clovers can be seeded at 1-1.5 lb. per acre.  Remember it is a very small seed than red clover - you can get it on too thick if not careful. I’ve found that mixing it with another seed as a carrier is good.  Red clover should be seeded at 6-8 lbs. per acre; birdsfoot trefoil at 5 lbs. per acre and common lespedeza with hulled seed at 10 lbs. per acre.  Those are single species rates, if mixing, then each would be reduced.

All legumes should be inoculated with the appropriate inoculants (rhizobia) for that species to insure proper bacteria, good germination and growth.  Coated seed, when available, can solve lots of problems including seed size, the inoculants and it can even help the pH for the seedling. 

Remember, it’s not about maximizing a grazing event, but maximizing a grazing season!  Keep on grazing!