As I write this, our cows are happily grazing a stand of frosted turnips, oats, and peas planted in August. They have no interest in the wheat/red clover clippings we offer in the hay bunk at home—in fact they hardly need to come home to drink. They have made very clear that they love this forage more than anything else, and they’re really milking on it. It looks kind of sad, crumpled over with repeated hard freezes, but they simply relish it, nuzzling it out from under the recent snows.
The freezing actually seems to improve the flavor of the turnips. (We know, because we regularly pick the tenderest young leaves and bring them home to cook for the dinner table. My son even likes to munch them raw as he walks through the field.) We do find utilization is best when we give them small sections at a time, to avoid trampling loss. It’s no problem to back graze since it’s a one-time grazing, so we just keep moving the wire down the field.
Fall grazing is a bountiful and satisfying time of year when we’re prepared for it. For us, planning for fall grazing happens when the cusp of summer is past, around late July or early August. Grass growth begins to slow down, so we don’t make very much hay after the beginning of August, to start stockpiling for fall grazing. Old stands that need reseeding or that are being pulled out for a rotation of row crops we may work up and plant to the turnip mixture. We like to include oats and peas since straight turnips are too rich for the cows.
Long rest periods late in the summer seem to set the stage for the best fall grazing. Here in northern Illinois, we try to be careful to follow the rule of cutting or grazing before September 15 or waiting until dormancy for the newer stands that most need to thrive for a few years. Between mid-September and when the turnips are ready, we graze the older stands that we expect to rotate out in the next year or two, and the red clover that was frost-seeded into winter wheat.
We have some paddocks heavy in Reed canary grass, which turns brown and even more unpalatable late in the season, so we try to get those grazed off before frost. When the frosts arrive, it can get a little tricky because of the risk of bloat on frosted legumes. So, we try to also graze stands heavy in alfalfa and other legumes before frost, though this isn’t always possible. We certainly avoid turning the cows out on freshly frosted alfalfa, and we do not graze any young, tender alfalfa after recent freezing.
After the long rest period of late summer, most of the alfalfa will be quite mature and less vegetative, so there’s less bloat risk. We also make sure to keep the cows full, keeping some rough forage in the bunks at home at all times as well as never letting them graze forage so short that they’re truly hungry. After a couple weeks of frequent frosts, the alfalfa dries up enough to be less bloat risky. Of course, by then many of the leaves have dropped off and it’s not too palatable, so that’s the trade-off.
Fescue is a forage that holds up well and actually seems to improve with frost. It is not as palatable as our mainstay orchardgrass during most of the grazing season. The paddocks we will graze last are strong in fescue. It works out well if the last paddocks are also the closest to the buildings, because when the winds start to pick up and the grass is getting more dormant (and less tasty), the cows are less excited about venturing out if the pastures are too far away.
Our goal is to keep the cows out on pasture as long as the weather is fit. This saves manure-hauling and tends to keep the cows cleaner. On the wide prairie here, we get sharp, cold winds that drive the cows home to the windbreak once winter arrives in earnest, usually sometime in December. To reach our goal, we may supplement with some lesser quality hay to make sure the grass will last as long as the weather. We save the best hay and baleage for winter.
Grazing management is such a learning process. Each year is different, yet there are patterns, rhythms, trends we can watch for and adjust to as we go along. It took me a few years to truly see how the grazing season unfolds and how differently I need to manage each period.