Dairy Cows Grazing
Updated: August 6, 2021
By Amanda Grev, Ph.D.

Grazing Mistakes to Avoid

Fortunately or unfortunately, people are creatures of habit. Over the years, we’ve developed behaviors and habits that will stick with us for a lifetime. This applies to our daily routines and the choices we make, both good and bad. Whether it’s not getting enough sleep, skimping on the sunscreen, or neglecting to floss on a daily basis, we often find ourselves guilty of making the same mistakes again and again. Unfortunately, this same phenomenon also holds true when it comes to grazing livestock. As you make plans for the upcoming growing season, here are a few of the more common grazing mistakes that we often fall prey to. Let’s do our best to break that habit and avoid these mistakes moving forward.

Focal point

Mistakes to Avoid: 

  1. Not understanding plant needs
    1. Strategy should vary depending on plant type
  2. Utilizing forage unevenly
    1. Manage over or under-grazed areas
  3. Neglecting soil fertiIity
    1. Routine analysis can detect deficiencies and pH changes
  4. Being too rigid with grazing plans
    1. Plans must adapt with grazing conditions
  5. Failing to keep good records



    Not understanding the plant’s needs

    There is a reason grazing heights and rest periods are so frequently discussed when it comes to forage management. Plants need to maintain enough stored energy to regrow following a grazing bout. Removing too much of the photosynthetic factory (i.e. the leaves) severely limits the plant’s ability to recover and regrow and sets the stage for further energy depletion and overgrazing the next time through the rotation. That being said, it is important to recognize that not all plants store their energy reserves in the same place. For example, while legumes like alfalfa store their energy in below ground structures, grasses like orchardgrass store their energy reserves in the base of the stem. Removing these storage structures by grazing too closely limits the plant’s capacity not only to regrow after grazing, but also to generate new tillers and persist long term. This is the basis behind recommendations on beginning and ending grazing heights and the reason a field of alfalfa will persist at a lower grazing or cutting height compared to orchardgrass or other cool-season grasses, most of which need at least 3 to 4 inches of post-grazing residual to maintain sufficient energy reserves.

    " ... putting together a grazing plan and keeping records ... allows you to more accurately evaluate how things went ... and make plans to adjust for the coming year." 

    Not managing for even forage utilization

    Pastures often develop areas with heavy usage and low forage availability, while other areas have less grazing pressure and abundant forage. As a result, the areas that are heavily grazed become more overgrazed while the areas that are left alone are understocked and the remaining forage becomes mature and declines nutritionally. Several management strategies exist to promote more even forage utilization across the field. Making water and shade available in other areas of the field to attract livestock to less desirable areas, mowing or clipping low-use or overgrown areas to keep forages vegetative, and subdividing the field into smaller sections for rotational grazing can all help alleviate this issue and result in greater forage utilization and productivity long-term.

    Not investing below the soil surface

    Practices like soil sampling and maintaining appropriate soil fertility are an investment but cannot be overlooked. Soil tests are a critical component in pasture management because they are the only way to determine limiting nutrients and soil pH. Soils will naturally become more acidic over time, and if the pH is too low certain nutrients will become less available to plants and toxicities may occur. Liming as needed and keeping up with soil nutrient status are essential investments to the health and productivity of a forage stand. Although it is true that under a pasture setting a large portion of nutrients are retained and recycled through the deposition of manure and urine, consider where those nutrients are being spread. They may not always be deposited evenly across the pasture and are likely more concentrated around water and shade sources or in laneways and other highly trafficked areas. Implementing some form of rotational grazing can help achieve a more even distribution of manure across the pastures and can be used together with any necessary lime or fertilizer to maintain soil fertility and keep forages productive.

    Not maintaining flexibility in your operation

    Flexibility is key when environmental and growing conditions vary from year to year and season to season. Good managers have to allow for flexibility and adaptive management in grazing systems to achieve desired outcomes. Examples of flexibility include adjusting stocking rates, changing rotational frequency and/or order of rotation, and potentially supplementing pastures with other forage sources as needed. For example, hotter and drier weather during the summer means grass growth rates will slow down and the amount of rest required may be much longer than that required during the spring when rapid growth is occurring; adjust your rotational schedule accordingly by rotating faster when the pastures are growing faster and slower when the pastures are growing slower. Maintaining flexibility in your system will allow you to balance the length of the rest period with the plant growth rate and is fundamental to successful grazing management.

    Not keeping good records

    With variables like forage growth rate and animal consumption constantly changing from day to day it can be a challenge to balance supply and demand for maximum efficiency. While it does require additional time to complete, putting together a grazing plan and keeping records on things like forage production and the timing of graze/rest periods allows you to more accurately evaluate how things went, assess your goals and limitations, and make plans to adjust for the coming year. A successful grazing plan can also help you be better prepared for weather-related issues and make sure you have enough forage to get you through the grazing season. There are an abundance of planning and monitoring tools available to help you accomplish this, including everything from paper charts to web-based tools to smart phone apps or technologies. If you’re interested and looking for something to get you started, check out one of the free grazing charts available at https://onpasture.com/2021/03/08/get-your-free-2021-grazing-planning-chart-and-instructions-here/


    This article appears in the Maryland Milk Moo's March 2021 (Volume 2, Issue 1) newsletter.


    Maryland Milk Moo's, March 2021, Vol.2, Issue 1

    Maryland Milk Moos is a quarterly newsletter published by the University of Maryland Extension that focuses on dairy topics related to Nutrition and Production, Herd Management, and Forage Production. To subscribe to this newsletter, click the button below to enter your contact information.