From the road, most pastures look pretty good during this time of year. However, the perception of green pastures while sitting in your pickup truck can be deceptive, according to Katie Mason, who serves as a beef nutrition specialist with the University of Tennessee.
“The only way to know what’s truly in the pasture is to get out and walk around,” Mason asserts. “From the seat of the cab, you are not accurately perceiving the type or amount of forage available, nor the amount of ground cover. You have to get out and walk.”
While trekking through pastures, Mason recommends that farmers assess the following:
1. Species present
How much of your pasture is made up of desirable species? Desirable species are those that are readily grazed, offer high quality, and are plentiful. These characteristics may encompass a variety of grass and legume species. A great pasture is made up of over 80% desirable species, according to Mason.
2. Percent of legume
Legumes can provide a nitrogen benefit when they comprise at least 30% of the pasture forage but do not cause a loss of grass.
3. Ground cover
Mason notes that it’s crucial to keep soil covered. This helps maintain moisture, moderates soil temperature, reduces runoff, and limits weed pressure. A dense stand ensures high animal intake and plenty of sunlight interception so plants can regrow after grazing events. Even dead plant material can break down to cover the ground and become organic matter in the soil.
4. Plant diversity
Diversity is a benefit for grazing systems. Having a mixture of warm- and cool-season grasses and legumes allows for a longer grazing season. It also enhances the quality and quantity of forage available throughout the year.
5. Grazing utilization
Is the pasture being evenly grazed, or are cattle spending more time near water or feeding areas than in the back corner? Are forage plants being grazed too short, resulting in slow or poor regrowth? Rotating cattle through pastures and allowing the pasture to rest encourages plant persistence and results in greater forage utilization.
Mason encourages farmers to evaluate these items during times of both peak and slow growth, at the beginning of the season, and after challenging weather conditions. It’s also recommended to make evaluations after a change in grazing management has been made.
“Pastures change throughout the year, and it is important to be flexible and adapt your plans based on what you observe,” Mason concludes.