There’s no doubt that feeding cattle on pasture and forage is the easiest and most economical way to raise healthy beef and dairy cows. After all, cows are ruminant animals, so pasture and forage are their ideal diet. The trick to being successful with this method is to ensure that your cows have access to the highest possible quality grasses and legumes. Even more than the cattle themselves, your success will depend on the quality of your pasture and soil.
The first thing you need to realize is that not all pastures are created equal. The quality, quantity, and variety of forage in your pasture will have a direct impact on your success. Your cattle will need good sources of calcium, proteins, and minerals for optimum health. Here are some tips to help you make your pasture the best it can be:
1. It All Starts with the Health of Your Soil.
No matter what type of pasture seed you plant, it won’t do well if the soil is not healthy. The healthier your soil is, the better the quantity and quality of the legumes and grasses you plant will be. And of course, that means your cattle will be healthier, as well.
Living soil is healthy soil. Spend the extra money to put in a good irrigation system if you live in a climate that doesn’t get precipitation regularly. Your goal is to have living roots in the soil all year long. The soil should always have something growing on it. Exposed soil will dry out quickly and possibly lead to erosion problems, so make sure you take care of any bare ground right away.
2. Have Your Soil Tested.
You really can’t just look at your soil and tell if it’s healthy or not. An experienced farmer or gardener might be able to make a pretty good judgment call by the look of the soil, but it’s better to send samples of your soil in for testing. A lab will be able to tell you what your soil is missing with a high degree of accuracy.
Once your tests come back, you’ll need to decide whether you should add fertilizer, lime, or some other type of amendment to your pasture. If you plan to plant only grasses, you will need to lower the pH of your soil. If your plan is to plant a mixture of both grass and legumes, with an emphasis on the legumes, avoid any fertilizer that has a nitrogen base. Nitrogen fertilizers will make your grasses grow quickly, but they’ll choke out your legumes.
3. Plan Out Your Planting and Grazing Schedule Carefully.
Careful planning is the key to successful pasture management. You’ll need to carefully consider what you will plant and when you’ll be putting your cattle on that area to graze. You’ll want to make sure that there’s going to be something available for your cattle to graze on during every season to cut back on the need for supplementation.
4. Choose Your Pasture Seed Mix Carefully.
The majority of pastures will contain a mix of grasses and legumes. Do your research to find out which seeds will be best for your cattle and climate. Clover and alfalfa might be good choices if you want to grow your own hay. Talk to other farmers in your area to see what’s working, or not working, for them. Be sure to use high-quality inoculants and sticking agents when you plant. Ensuring that your seeds have good contact with the soil when you do your planting is also crucial.
5. Don’t Let Your Pasture Get Overgrown.
Although you don’t want to have bare patches of soil, you also don’t want your pasture to become so overgrown that it can’t reseed itself. Overgrown vegetation will prevent seeds from making good contact with the soil, and your legumes will get smothered by the grasses. Keep the pasture at a reasonable length by allowing your cattle to graze on it or even mowing it periodically if you need to.
6. Keep Weeds Under Control.
Weeds can take over fast and consume all the nutrients your pasture plants need for healthy growth. They can also block out the sun, which isn’t good for your other plants either. Identify weeds growing your pasture right away and find the best solution for getting rid of them before they gain a foothold in your pasture and are much more difficult to get rid of.
7. Plan with the Seasons in Mind.
The changing of the seasons always has and always will play a major role in your planning and planting. Most everything but alfalfa should be planted in late winter so that the seeds will get covered during the thaws and freezes of early spring. During the warmer months of the growing season, rotate your cattle to keep the grasses and legumes from becoming overgrown. Your legumes need to be about 3-4 inches tall before your cattle graze on them to allow them to get well established. After that, rotational grazing is the best way to maintain optimal growth.
At certain times of the year, especially during winter, it may be necessary to supplement your cows’ diet with grains like barley, oats, and corn. Supplementing with grain will give your cattle more energy and protein to help them come through the leaner months without losing weight. This is especially important for dairy cows because lack of sufficient quality feed can lead to a severe decrease in milk production.
Although raising cattle on pasture is more economical, care will need to be taken to ensure that they have the highest quality forage to meet their needs. Taking the time to build good soil find out what grows most successfully in your area before you start your planting will help to prevent the need for supplementing with expensive grain and hay. The extra effort required will be well worth it in the long run.