Pasture Recovery Restoration and Rejuvenation 2018
Rest is the Key to Recovery for Alberta Pastures this Spring
After enduring one of the toughest calving seasons on record, producers throughout Alberta aren't the only ones that will be requiring a little more rest and recovery from stress this spring. From widespread drought conditions to wildfires throughout the province last grazing season, pastures too are coming into the 2018 season stressed and needing more time to recover.
"This grazing season comes with a warning to not rush to spring pastures," says Grant Lastiwka, P. Ag. Forage/Livestock Business Specialist, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry. "We've had too many areas of Alberta being too dry and for those areas hosting the most cattle in our province being some of the driest. In those areas, all pastures were dry going into last year from the previous year. They are going to need time in spring for growth before grazing."
That is why Lastiwka says that the well-known recommendation of the late forage researcher from Brandon-Hugo Gross that's been talked about for years; "wait one day in the spring and gain three days more grazing in the fall," is especially relevant and critical this grazing season for pastures managed with less residual, less health, less roots and root stores. But for most pasture managers, we still need to wait for the snow melt moisture to get into the ground and allow time for plants to get to the three-leaf stage of plant growth when plants start putting back nutrients used for this early growth.
The plants/pastures most stressed from drought and last year's grazing practices will take the longest time to get three leaves of growth in spring.
"Early mistakes in pasture management can cause long-term damage."
"When it comes to managing pastures, the last mistake we want to make is to set back a pasture with a spring mistake, as it will affect us all summer long in the pasture," says Lastiwka.
Lastiwka explains that plants that are deficient or stressed will look at survival first. These plants need more time in spring to grow three leaves or more than an unstressed plant. This above ground growth occurs from the past year's nutrient stores before they can put reserves back down into the root system.
"The root health of a plant is critical to its ability to grow throughout the growing season. Most grass root systems will stop growth within 24 hours of severe defoliation. For unhealthy plants that are subjected to a severe bite, it can significantly delay its regrowth for 10 to 14 days in some instances. The more rest in early spring for leaf area accumulation you give stressed or over-used pastures the better," says Lastiwka. "That is why for both recovery and rejuvenation, it is really important that we get the spring growth and let it be the best it can be. When in doubt – don't turn them out," he says.
Despite the challenges that persistent snowfall presented for cow/calf producers this calving season, Lastiwka says it was also a blessing in disguise, as it will play a significant role in the recovery and rejuvenation of Alberta pastures.
"The snow melt and run-off will provide much needed replenishment of moisture and infiltration – another reason to be cautious not to turn cattle to pasture too early."
"We want to ensure that we are letting those pastures get a good start so they are able to take advantage of the growth potential from the snow moisture infiltration. We want to make sure we are letting the plants get the moisture they deserve and turn that into leaf growth," says Lastiwka.
Lastiwka also explains that although it might be surprising to some, light does make its way through snow to the plants underneath, depending on its type and depth.
"The snow has been an insulator and moisture resource for grass this spring. It has protected the plants from weather extremes like high winds, wind chills and frigid temperatures, but still allows much needed sunlight. The snow cover may also mean that pastures will hover in dormancy a little longer too though, or be delayed based on using reserves," says Lastiwka.
Lastiwka advises producers to let the snow moisture do the work for you out on the pasture, allowing it to rejuvenate the stand with growth of the tiller buds that were initiated and not taking the nutrient reserves away from those active buds by grazing off any green growth. By letting the plant have time to contribute to new tiller bud growth, at least to the three-leaf stage, we are supporting more potential for other tillers and leaves, he says. You will be supporting a thicker and a denser grass stand to come.
"We know that plants are alive 365 days of the year. As they are alive, they are setting themselves up for tiller buds for this and next year's growth. These leaf tillers can be aborted or even just produce smaller plants with less leaf area due to stress on the plants. Remember that it is a 365-day system so robbing Peter to pay Paul is not going to work in pasture management," warns Lastiwka.
However, if you are like many producers, feed shortages are leaving very little option for delaying turnout.
So what do you do if you desperately need to use a pasture that should be rested?
"You could sacrifice an area and supplement the livestock with other feeds such as pellets, range cubes or hay," says Lastiwka. "Offer supplemental feeds earlier, rather than later though, because by the time you see the condition of your animals failing, it will be much harder to put condition back on them and allowing for pasture recovery will be very difficult. Supplementing earlier will reduce your feed cost and help maintain or improve animal gains." Alternatively, seed some annuals for grazing or reduce animal numbers by choosing different classes of animals to sell or put in a feedlot.
In conclusion, Lastiwka advises that pastures be managed with a long-term strategy in mind, not a short-term vision. That way, he says, you will be supporting healthier pastures with more growth in the fall, extending your grazing season for this year and for seasons to come.
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