The Evolution of a Multi-Species Grazing Operation

The Evolution of a Multi-Species Grazing Operation

The Goal of Big Spring Farm:

 “An easily managed, low input grazing operation that improves production and the environment while being consistently profitable” Greg Brann.


Brief History of Big Spring Farm 2005:  The Big Spring Farm is named for a boiling cold spring that is estimated to have an output of 30,000 gallons per minute.  The farm was purchased by my dad in 1964 for cow-calf and trout production, unfortunately, the trout enterprise never materialized.  The farm increased in size due to land purchases and land rentals to 1200+ acres of pasture and hay.  Over the years, tobacco, Christmas trees, corn, and soybeans have all been produced but it has always been predominantly a cow-calf operation.  The largest number of cattle was 300+ cows and 270 backgrounding stocker calves.  Dads’ famous sayings were “good pasture is the best fence” and “don’t fix it too good they can’t get back in” and while he did pretty well at maintaining some single wire electric cross fence, the perimeter fence steadily rusted away.  At 88,  my brother and I are slowly taking over the running of the operation.  Currently, my brother and I have divided up the operation and entered some land in CREP, a state form of CRP, leaving my operation with 210 acres of pasture.


Fencing: My brother and I decided we had to have a good perimeter fence above all so that became a priority.  With all the blackberry briars, buckbrush, and assorted browse, goats seemed to be a choice species for us.  Since we always preferred high tensile fence, what is the big deal about adding an extra wire or two to run goats too?  We didn’t know much about goats but I knew it was accepted knowledge that a producer can run 1-2 goats for every cow and not impact the cows grazing.  Later we found it actually improved grazing for the cattle.  After about one year my brother decided he had had enough of goats dying (Listeria and various other adaptation disorders) and wrestling to de-worm them and trim feet, so I bought him out and continued the goat enterprise.  Thankfully, he didn’t charge me any rent since he knew that running them on the correct pastures would control weeds.  Later we divided up the land and now he and his sons run stocker cattle and I run a multi-species grazing operation. 

With any new enterprise, you go through an adaptation trough phase for 3 to 5 years before you reach a new plateau for the enterprise.  Initially, we just fenced the perimeter of one area and used electro-net fencing to control graze about an acre at a time with a stock density of 7,000 lb/ac.  This worked pretty well.  We would set up two paddocks at a time and when they moved into the second paddock we would move three sides of the first paddock and set up a third paddock hopscotching across the field.  Other areas we fenced were the boundary of fields allowing the goats access to the whole field while cattle were control-grazed.

The ideal fence and water layout are parallel fences about 435’ apart with water hookups located 435’ apart in every other fence line.  This allows maximum flexibility.  I like 435’ because a 100’ length equals one acre.  Three rolls of electro-net 164’ each will more than span this width and if you are using single polywire with a post spacing of 40’ you can easily carry 8 to 10 posts.  When I run a high single polywire for cattle (48” high) I space post up to 100’ apart.  In the end, when terrain, woods, soil type, and vegetation are all considered spacing between parallel fences may need to vary considerably. Any distance you are willing to walk and install temporary fence is just fine.  Initially, you may want to install every other fence with the ultimate goal of installing others later.  Not every fence needs to be worthy of controlling all species.  When wire is closer to the ground try to target 7” with post spacing needs to be closer usually 40’ works even in rolling terrain.  In one year, counting all of the temporary fences built, we have over 50 paddocks.

Creep grazing: Now we run one herd consisting of cows, calves, sheep, lambs, does, kids, a donkey, and five guardian dogs.  It’s rather entertaining to watch the herd dynamics. I have eleven permanent paddocks to control all animals and we run a high single polywire holding the cows back and allowing the calves, sheep, and goats to creep graze, and in winter creep hay.  This allows creeped animal’s access to more choice thereby increasing nutrition.  At other times, I run another low polywire which restricts calves and allowing sheep and goat to graze.  This is only necessary when sheep and goats need higher nutrition, such as at breeding or birthing time.  It’s also used to keep cows and calves out of sericea hay or high dollar sheep mineral.

Goats to Sheep:  Compared to cattle, goats are quite inexpensive, and improving genetics is more difficult when the initial cost of the animal is higher and the gestation period is longer.

Once you are fenced for goats you can run pretty much any species.  I monitor forage and pressure continuously for recovery needed to improve forage management.  So, I constantly adjust the number of cattle, sheep, and goats relative to what is best for the pasture and animals.    Goat numbers at Big Spring Farm fluctuated from 70 to 300 back down to 70, up to 130, and has now settled at around  50 does (Kiko/Spanish nannies).  My reasoning for the downsizing is that, even though the goats are extremely prolific and easy to keep, I found the goats compete with the sheep (Katahdin) for forage.  

In my experience, sheep compete more with cattle for forage but they are also more productive than goats and cattle and easier to handle. The bottom line for me is that adult ewes over one-year-old rarely need deworming, Katahdin sheep can be bred at 10 months of age and have lambs unassisted after just five months of gestation.  Sheep have a higher twining percentage of 1.7 lambs per ewe, whereas the goats only average 1.4 kids per doe. I’ve found that sheep typically don’t eat much hay till all the grazing is over, which is a good thing, but, be careful, they will overgraze if not rotated often.

Cattle to sheep:  I’ve been decreasing the cow herd since I’ve found sheep to be so much more productive per female.  I don’t know of any other animal that can wean more than their weight in 10 months.  Cattle are doing well if they wean 45% of their weight but sheep will wean 100% or more of their weight.  The sheep and goats naturally wean their lambs, which creates much less stress for me and the animals.  In the past, we had the most problems during weaning lambs and kids. Most of the issues have disappeared now that we allow them to self-wean, eliminating stress for us all.  If I was lambing more frequently  I would certainly need to wean to maintain ewe condition.   If I have one ewe that doesn’t maintain condition due to longer lactation I will likely cull her since she doesn’t fit the herd management.

Due to the stress involved, I am trying to not wean calves either but since cattle lactate longer it makes it much harder. We are selecting for natural weaning cows but still wanting to see the calf weigh at least 45% or more of the cow’s weight when it is ten months of age.

One group versus separate groups: Although I  have run the goats and sheep together without incident, I’ve resisted combining the sheep with the cattle due to the inconclusive information regarding the tolerance of Katahdin sheep to copper.  After visiting with several sheep producers who have fed beef mineral to Katahdin sheep for 5 years or more I decided to take the chance.  It is important to note that wool sheep seem to be more sensitive to copper toxicity than hair sheep.

One huge advantage of running separate groups is you can target graze certain plants.  However, the benefits of running one group far outweigh the advantage of target grazing.  Target grazing can still be done but you must consider the impact on other animals in the herd. Some call it a flerd; part flock, part herd. 

Longer rest periods for pasture (which reduces internal parasite load), being able to feed guardian dogs at one location, hay feeding in one location, more power on less fence,  less fence to check, higher stock density for shorter periods of time are all benefits of the flerd system.

Separate herds: In the past, I always maintained a “sell lot” for anything that was not performing up to the standard of the herd.  Since we don’t want any births occurring in mid-December through mid-February the rams and bucks are pulled July 24 through September 24. Bulls are just left in with the herd and I  pregnancy test in November or December and sell all cows not bred or bred out of sync with the group.  The target is a 60 day calving period.   Calves are kept till 24 months old and sold as grass-finished cattle. Heifers that don’t breed are still worth a premium as finished cattle.  

Watering Facilities: Water is the most important nutrient and is a major draw for the location of cattle.  Sheep and goats don’t tend to hang around water the same as cattle do.  The tendency is for the pasture around the water point to be overgrazed, partially due to allowing back grazing for more than 4 days. 

 I am a big believer in a pressurized water system so that you can place the water point where you want it and not be dependent on a good pond site, gravity flow,  spring flow, or limitations of ram pump, solar pump, etc.  The ideal spot for a water trough is based on rotation, forages, and lay of the land.  In general, I want the watering point to be located on a slight slope of 3% grade near the ridge top but mainly you want your to have water throughout the property so that no water point is overgrazed 

I have ball waters, ( Richie and Mirofount), tire troughs, open goat troughs, rubber maid portable troughs, and old protein tubes plumbed.  I prefer the Gallagher brass valve for open troughs.  I like the Mirofount more than the Richie for cattle due to the visibility of balls and the option to take off covers with plumbing still covered. However, the balls are harder to push down on the Miirafount.  Balls in either trough can be taken out.  Goats and sheep don’t have the power to push balls down like cattle.  The ball troughs are lower maintenance than other troughs but more expensive.  I mainly have tire troughs throughout the farm.  They’re great for big herds but I have lost several goat kids and lambs in the open troughs due to not having the water level high enough.  The water must be within 2” of the top.  You’ll need to place blocks in water deeper than 12”. 

Forage: In general I believe in managing the forage you have and not completely reseeding the entire pasture.  A good start is taking a soil test to know the status of soil fertility.  If fertilizer dollars are limited, apply lime and fertilizer to low testing soils first.  Also, consider the most potential is productions on the best soil types. Get a soil map from the USDA/NRCS office or  

When it comes to seeding mixtures, there are so many choices; cool and warm season, annuals and perennials, grasses, legumes, brassicas, and other forbs and browse.  Ultimately its good to have about 30% of the acreage in warm-season forage.  First evaluate if your stand of grass is adequate, for cools season grass you need a plant every 6” with 3 strong tillers.  If you don’t have this you will need to seed grass as well with a no-till drill or some tillage.  The easiest and cheapest way to upgrade the pasture is by adding legumes through frost seeding.  There are many advantages to having legumes: higher quality forage, provide nitrogen, lengthening of the growing season.  The negative aspects of legumes of over 35% are that it can create voids in a drought.  Although white clover is the cheapest, only costing 7-$10/ac to seed at 2 lb/ac  I would recommend seeding 4 to 7 lb of red clover/ac. On the most droughty land seed annual lespedeza 8 or more lbs per ac. Lespedeza has concentrated tannins in them and are natural dewormers.   Annual crabgrass is an annual that can fill these voids, providing warm-season forage. Crabgrass is a reseeding annual that is a savior but the negative side is it needs disturbance from tillage or high animal traffic at least once a year to maintain vibrancy.   Native grasses have great potential but they are slow to establish (approximately 2 years) and do not tolerate close grazing.  Bermudagrass is not preferred forage of goats but is excellent around heavy use areas such as corrals or water points.  Common bermudagrass spreads by seed, rhizomes, and stolons so it spreads more than hybrid types that very few viable seeds, making the hybrid types vegetatively preferable.   Another thing to consider in the evaluation of fields is certain plants that increase due to avoidance by livestock so they are left to reach their full expression and make seed while other plants decrease due to overgrazing and excessive use.  Putting pressure on plants you want to decrease especially when emerging and when they make seed are major tools to use to improve pastures while resting or allowing full recovery of plants you want to increase can bring change your pastures quickly.

Hay: Buying hay is always a good deal since the cost of making hay is so high.  The average cost of making hay is $80/ton.  Also when you bring hay onto your farm you are bringing in nutrients.  Each ton of hay, on average, contains 45 lb N, 12 lb P2O5, and 45 lb K2O or $50/ton in nutrients.  The key is getting those nutrients deposited by the livestock well distributed over the field.  When manure is deposited in the barn, rather than directly on the pastures, the expense of equipment, time, and fuel to load and spread the manure change the economics drastically.  Also, remember that when nutrients end up near water they can cause water quality issues.

Summary:  Every time I enter a field I evaluate the impacts and improvements of management and determine what is needed to improve the economics, environment, and community dynamics of the operation.  Mostly, working with nature is rewarding and humbling.

Water Points

Water Points

Water the most important nutrient! It’s the largest quantity requirement for beef and dairy cattle (e.g. 15 gal/day = 125 lb/day). Water is commonly the weakest link in grazing systems. Water placement impacts grazing (overgrazing and under utilization) and nutrient (manure and urine) distribution.  If you have excessive trailing is a sign of needing better water distribution.


Download the entire Water Points PDF here.

Timely Tips – June

Timely Tips – June

We are at the change of seasons.  A time to contemplate and plan for summer forage. Note in the graph above, as temperatures hit 80 degrees F. or higher cool season forage production decreases and warm seasons forages kick in high gear.  I encourage you to make warm season and drought management decisions prior to the end of the recommended seeding date for warm season forages, July 1.


  • Stockpile cool season forage into summer
  • Graze a field hard to release the seed bank for natural regeneration
  • Seed summer annuals
  • Seed summer perennials
  • Fertilization to improve warm season production

Stockpile cool season forage into summer. 

Although I think it is wise to carry some cool season growth into summer, the quality of it will be dependent on temperature and rainfall.  It may hold all summer but if it gets hot and dry it will just be some carbon to lay down and forage quality will be very poor.  Red clover and annual lespedeza will extend growth into summer.

Graze a field hard to release the seed bank for natural regeneration

It’s a lot like rolling the dice.  Unless you know the field well you may release some warm season species you don’t want. This technique works extremely well for release of bermudagrass, crabgrass and dallisgrass.  Other plants that are also likely to grow white clover (if it is cool and moist), ragweed, lambsquarter (both test like alfalfa but stock don’t always consume them), spiny amaranth (weed due to spines other amaranths are palatable and high quality), cocklebur (bad weed, big canopy, sometimes consumed), nimblewill (terrible grass weed that looks like bermudagrass, not readily grazed). Grazing 20% of the pastures low May –June is a decent strategy.

Seed summer annuals. 

Crabgrass, cowpeas and lablab are the only species that UT recommend planting as late as July 1.  Forage & Field Crop Seeding Guide For Tennessee

Crabgrass Improved Variety Options Crabgrass improved variety options:

Quick and Big and Red River.

Quick and Big is fast growth and Red River has a longer growing season.  You may want to seed a blend of the two, sometimes folks add annual lespedeza to the mix.

The seeding rate of crabgrass is 3 to 5 lb/ac.  If you add annual lespedeza 8 to 10 lb/ac.  Crabgrass is a reseeding annual that responds to disturbance at least once a year.  Cowpeas, high quality drought tolerant legume which makes a good smother crop if you have an undesirable weed you are trying to control.  Even though it is a little late for millet you may want to add 10-20 lb/ac. of pearl or browntop millet with the cowpeas.  Lablab is typically grown for wildlife food plots but is good forage for ruminants too best used in a mix.


Seed summer perennials

Bermudagrass is the only plant UT recommends planting as late as July 1.  I usually just recommend bermudagrass on areas that are planned for heavy use areas or where nutrients are going to be high.  Bermudagrass has some issues, stem maggot (it kills the primary stem tip reducing production) which most spray an insecticide for control, grazing could be used to reduce impacts also bermudagrass does best where nutrients are high.  There are several improved bermudagrass varieties: Cheyenne II (highest producing seeded type); Laredo (Allied seed variety, blend of Mohawk , KF-194, & Rancher; Wrangler (most cold tolerant).  You can also establish bermudagrass with clippings using Vaughn’s No. 1 which is typically thought of as the Cadillac of bermudagrasses for our area. Bermudagrass can produce high tonnage, be used hard and overseeded with clovers and winter annuals the second year after establishment.

Another warm season grass option although it is too late to seed now is native warm season grass (NWSG) it’s best sown when seed are exposed to a couple of cold chills (vernalization). Now is the time to start planning for it.  I like NWSG sown on lower fertility soils so weed competition is less. On low production you are not giving up much production while the natives are establishing for a couple of years. Usually herbicides are used to establish NWSG however an option to establish it without herbicides would be to terminate existing vegetation with tillage plant a summer annual leaving most of the biomass on the soil surface then no-tilling in cereal rye.  Dormant planting NWSG in December – April into cereal rye.  Rolling down the cereal rye in early April for weed control.  Natives will emerge through the residue in the spring.

Fertilization to improve warm season production

Applying nutrients to grass May – July increases warm season production.  Nitrogen has the biggest impact on forage production, nitrogen also increases protein content in the grass.  Typically no more than 60 lb of nitrogen is recommended in one application and typically applications should be scheduled 30 or more days apart. I personally don’t like over 45 lb of nitrogen in one application because if it turns off dry, high rates of nitrogen can cause forage to accumulate nitrates.

Indicator Plants

Indicator Plants


Indicator Plants are plants that, by their presence or abundance, provide an assessment of the quality of the site. Past soil management has a dramatic effect on the plant community and the plant community doesn’t change quickly so some indicator plants may persist after
management has improved. Indicator plants provide insight to what is occurring below the surface but there are many factors that come into play such as previous land use or management. These can dramatically influence seed availability on the site (e.g. – a low fertility site may still have broomsedge or rabbit tobacco on it even though fertility has improved). Soil testing, rest and recovery, more cover, increased diversity, seeding or other soil management methods may be required to alter the site to the desired state. The best weed control is out-competing undesirable plants. “Manage for what you want, not for what you don’t want. It takes grass to grow grass.”

Some Options for Mitigating Resource Concerns

The plants that grew naturally on the site are nature’s way of healing the site some of them are very palatable and others are not. If these are undesirable plants you may want to terminate existing plants
and plant a more desirable plant community that is adapted to the site.
Compacted Soil: More roots are needed fibrous and tap roots. Maintaining living roots all year helps. Allowing plants to recover longer between grazing and mowing improves root system. More residue helps. Resting plants during their active growing season strengthens plants. All plants help reduce issues with compaction but
the following plants are renowned for improving soil Compaction.

Cool season annual plants are: Forage radish and Cereal rye; perennial cool season plants: alfalfa, chicory, red clover and sweet clover.

Warm season annual plants are: sorghums and warm season perennial plants:

Native warm season grasses like: big bluestem, little bluestem, indiangrass, switchgrass and eastern gamagrass. Bermudagrass is tolerant of overgrazing and rather drought tolerant but doesn’t have as deep a root system as natives and needs nutrients for production.

Overgrazed Land: Longer recovery between grazing improves vigor of plants. If grazing skip a paddock resting a paddock for up to 90 days in the growing season and up to 210 days in the winter. Lowering stocking rate will remove stress on the the grass, soil, livestock and you. Increasing inputs such as fertilizing, feeding, number of paddocks and rotating more often leaving minimum heights of grass for soil protection, improved
infiltration, lower soil temperature and improved water management. All of these inputs reduce the impacts of overgrazing and shallow root systems. When minimum grazing heights are reached confine livestock to 20% or less of the land and feed hay till other paddocks reach a minimum height of 8” then resume grazing. It is ideal
to graze a paddock for 3 days or less, not allowing livestock to take a second bite of the same plant. In general the minimum recovery time or rest period between grazings is 14 days but base the rotation on height don’t graze below 4” (minimum of 4 layers of leaves).

Wet or Flooded: NRCS does not encourage draining land, wetlands are very important ecosystems and
aquifer recharge areas. Before draining land check with your local NRCS office you could lose USDA benefits
or be fined by other agencies. Don’t graze or travel on wet or saturated soil. Drive only in designated areas controlling traffic. If you must enter a field when it is wet walk or use an atv also wide tires compact less that narrow tires. Forage species that are adapted to wet and flooded land are: cereal rye, hairy vetch, alsike clover, red top, alsike clover, switchgrass and eastern gamagrass.

Red sorrel and Oxeye daisy

Low Fertility Soil: A plant tissue test may be in order to determine the deficiency contact the lab prior to sending in the sample. Feeding hay on low fertility relocates nutrients to the feeding site. Move or unroll hay in a new location each time you feed. High density short duration grazing improves manure distribution which improves fertility. Adjust pH to the desired level prior to applying deficient nutrients. You can move fertility in the animal as well by grazing a fertile field then rotating to one less fertile the manure dropped will be from the more fertile field. Plants, cover and roots aid in making more nutrients actively available to plants. Plants adapted to low fertility include: Cereal rye, lespedezas and native grasses.



Pasture to Silvopasture

Silvopasture Plan

Goal: Managing timber and grass to the advantage of both.


Light Management and Tree Planting:


Harvest salable timber or perform hack and squirt technique to remove low grade trees providing light for regeneration of trees and to grow grass.  Work with forester on designated trees to remove. NRCS can currently not recommend removal of trees by other methods due to potential impacts on bat habitat. The minimum light needed to grow cool season grass is 50% light to the ground with a minimum opening of 0.10 ac (66’x66’).  To grow warm season grass a minimum of 60% light (70’ x 70’) is needed to the ground.  The layout of trees can be scattered or in rows or a combination of the two.  Minimum trees per acre is 27 trees/ac (average spacing of 40’x40’) and the maximum to grow grass is 304 trees/ac (average spacing of 8’x 18’).  Thinning may be required in the future to improve tree growth and maintain productive grass. 

 Shade for Livestock:  

If shade is needed for livestock planting trees on the south and or west side of a paddock is desired, south fence line is best.  Unless it is a wide band of trees that will provide 63 square feet of shade or more per cow calf with access through the shade a line of trees will be needed on every fence line.  Another option is a cluster of trees planted or left so livestock have access to shade from multiple paddocks.  In this case ideally there would be a cluster of shade trees accessible from all paddocks.  The minimum size of this planting is 630 square foot per cow calf with the shade area used fifty percent or less of the time.

Livestock exclusion:

If trees are less than 15’ tall they will need to be protected from livestock for horned cattle it will likely be longer.  The typical browse height is 5 to 6’ so we want to protect the trees from browsing to 6’ or higher.  Set stocked livestock are more likely to rub on the trees and remove the bark girdling and killing them.  Livestock exclusion can be: a fence that restrains livestock away from the terminal bud and trunk, factors are height of the fence and distance from the tree (i.e. 42” electric fence and 24” inset of tree), a cage 18” diameter 6’ tall, 6’ diameter 5’ high or tubex or vexar 6’ tall secured with multiple post to prevent damage from livestock. Be observant watching for any potential damage to trees.  When trees are young they are particularly prone to browsing and being rubbed on.  Protection of the terminal bud is the main concern.  In wet conditions do not allow livestock to graze timber areas where soils are prone to compaction (e.g. Godwin soil type). Be aware of the danger of windfall to humans and livestock where trees have been killed by hack and squirt particularly in windy conditions.  Also be sure grazing restrictions are adhered to according to herbicide label or UT guidelines.

 Grazing Management:

 Practice rotational grazing for cool season forages allow forages to reach a minimum of 8” prior to grazing and graze down to 4” or taller. Allowing forages to reach the boot to early head stage is ideal for soil health and achieving the best balance of biomass for and forage quality. Livestock should not be allowed to denude land under trees, strive to maintain soil cover of both residual plants and dead residue. Rotation will be based on grass height, cover and impacts on trees and all vegetation however an approximate rotation will be 4 days or less on a paddock and a recovery time of 28 days or more. A recovery time of 45 days or more will be strived for. In the winter time a recovery time between grazing may be as long as 210 days.
Native warm season grasses (NWSG) will be 18” tall prior to grazing and not grazed lower than 8”. Manage for 12” height or taller prior to the first frost or November 1 whichever occurs first. After frost they can be grazed, it may improve production of NWSG to graze them low in March prior to green up. A managed prescribed fire can also improve production of NWSG, contact TWRA or TDF before burning. If vigor of native grasses is slower than expected allow them a longer regrowth period prior to grazing remove no more than half of the height when you do graze them.

 A graze plan (forage animal balance spreadsheet) will accompany this document.

Seeding Mixtures for silvopasture areas


Cool Season grass mix:



 Native Warm Season grass mix: 




 Locate mineral, supplementary feed and hay 30’ or further away from desirable trees.  Water for livestock will be placed high on the landscape and strategically located so the paddock can be further subdivided.  Strive for a travel distance for livestock to water being 800’ or less.  The pipeline can be burst proof high density poly pipe on top of the ground or buried 18” underground permanent water tanks can be installed but you are encouraged to use quick couplers with portable troughs. In general water is needed in every other fence line.


 Be observant and manage livestock to enhance the growth of trees and forage.  If trees are showing signs of decline reduce livestock access to the trees. Manage to keep adequate light to the ground to grow forage and respect minimum grazing heights.

Timely Tips – January

Timely Tips – January

It is hard to believe but it’s time to order seed for frost seeding in February.  Producers should inventory fields and determine legumes and grass needed.


Seed that are suited well to frost seeding:

red clover, white clover and annual lespedeza (on thin less productive ground).  Don’t seed annual lespedeza on productive soils it doesn’t compete well with other species.

Lesser used species that also frost seed well are:

arrowleaf clover, crimson clover, hairy vetch (these are reseeding annuals which are typically seeded in the fall but can work in the spring for producers willing to manage grazing heights.  Hairy vetch is an underutilized species, adapted for to all soil types wet or droughty. Great for grazing but slow to get going needs minimum of 90 days growth.  Reseeds very well it is already present in most fields but doesn’t amount to much because livestock graze it out before it produces any quantity. Brassicas can also be seeded in February they will last one year if we have mild summer.  Grasses that establish easily: Prairie bromegrass, annual ryegrass (5 lb or less in a mix).  Annual ryegrass has shown excellent results in controlling spiny amaranth emergence.


Feed hay on infertile or weedy land.  Unrolling hay is a good practice for improving land. Hay needs to be cleaned up by stock daily.  Another option is bale grazing: setting out hay when the ground is dry or frozen then allow animals access to  hay in paddocks.

Timely Tips – January – Forage

Timely Tips – January – Forage

Planning: Winter is a great time to reflect on our management this past year and what changes we plan for the upcoming year.  Stocking rate, feeding, sacrifice area, culling, grazing management, seeding, etc.

Stocking rate has the biggest impact on resource management and our bottom line.  In this high rainfall area we typically think 1 animal unit (AU, 1,000 lb. cow with up to a 300 lb. calf) per 2 acres and this is where my operation is currently stocked with 90 to 120 days of hay feeding. This is too high and too many days of hay feeding, Greg Halich, University of KY Agriculture Economist, recently estimated with current cattle prices and moderate to low. Low cow cost operators can reasonably feed 60 days.  Acres per animal unit depends on lots of variables: soil fertility, soil type, residual grazing height, rotation days of grass recovery, and lots of other factors. Very few farms: have optimum soil fertility, manage to not graze below minimum residual heights (e.g. 3” for tall fescue), provide time for grass to recover and regrow.  Most excellent grazers that feed no hay are stocked at 1 AU per 4 or 5 acres and rotate every day or more often.  A reasonable stocking rate for most operations that is 3 acres per animal unit.  Remember that stockpiled tall fescue is better than hay all the way till March. Sometimes you have to take a step back to make two steps forward.

Feeding strategies for profit, ultimately don’t feed hay in one location the same way year to year or even in wet and dry times.  Like all grazing management it is best to not lock into one strategy.  If it is wet and soil is prone to compaction consider feeding hay in rings.  If you have a hay manger to feed out of or a hay feeding pad this is the time to use them. When the ground is dry or frozen it is a good time to unroll hay daily.  Feeding hay in rings in combination with unrolling at the same time typically doesn’t work so well because stock don’t clean up the unrolled hay soon enough. Best areas to target when feeding hay are fields with low fertility or lots of undesirable forage. Each ton of hay contains 60-13-48 of N-P2O5-K2O.  Unrolling hay on a low fertility field in combination with liming i can change it to a high producing field in about 3 years.

Equipment to consider, not an endorsement of vendors: Hay B Gone, hay unroller can be pulled with a UTV; Spin off, a hydraulic driven hay unroller for the tractor that spins both ways and works well for flatter terrain; hay saver feeder is good for permanent hay feeding site but too heavy for rotational feeding and there are some reports of incidence of calves being hung in them.  Plastic hay rings very light but hold up well.

Convenience is feeding near the barn, it is easy, less traffic compaction by equipment but poor utilization of nutrients in the hay and manure.  Expect weeds like spiny amaranth on land with excessive nutrients.


Unrolling hay, takes some management and requires being done daily.  If done correctly, Texas A & M found that one third less hay was needed.  Other studies have shown as much as half of the hay can be wasted (it’s not waste if it returns to the soil) if not done timely/properly.  Poor quality hay is more prone to avoidance and if your unrolled hay gets rained on it is less palatable.  Advantages of unrolling hay is more stock have access to hay and calves are less likely to be stepped on, lower cost than lots of hay rings and manure, biomass and trampling are strategically placed. Typically don’t need to reseed after unrolling hay. Caution any form of hay feeding can bring in weed seeds.

 Bale Grazing, is where you spread bales across a paddock in the fall or winter and move a temporary wire to allow access to more hay.  Ideally you would move hay rings to control loss.  Round rolls should be a minimum of 30’ apart and most likely you will need to seed the area after feeding so feeding them in somewhat of a straight line make reseeding easier.  You can also creep bale graze allowing calves access to higher quality hay under a high electric wire.

Places not to feed: on the creek or other water areas unless you are trying to seal a pond.  Don’t store hay or feed hay in the drip line of trees unless you are trying to control some weeds.  Nutrients from the hay and manure are best spread across the pasture by the animals.  Don’t feed on waterways unless it is already gullied and you have a plan to seed it soon after feeding. Also avoid feeding in depressions or near sinkholes.

Sacrifice areas, not many farms have good designated sacrifice areas.  These areas are for use when pastures are grazed down to minimum recommended heights.  I used to think it was ok to graze down to 2” height in winter but in order to optimize grass production maintain 3” or more height on pastures.  Location of a sacrifice area: fence off an area that is high on the landscape centrally located (the hub of the operation) and an area that doesn’t have any sensitive areas like water bodies, drainageways or karst areas.  If it does have sensitive areas NRCS recommends fencing those areas out.  If sensitive areas are present it is best to have a 35’ wide or wider vegetative filter where water enters these areas. Single wire electric temporary fence can be used to accomplish all this. 

Grazing management: Continue to feed hay into the spring till grass is 6-8” tall this will allow the grass to become stronger and set you up for grazing an extended time. Ideally some fall grown grass mixed with springs lush grass is best.  If grass gets ahead of you in the spring defer grazing some fields till August, it is not likely to be high quality in August however it will return that biomass to the ground at a time when cool season grasses typically break dormancy allowing you to grow additional stockpiled grass for winter.

               Manage minimum grazing heights of 3- 4” or higher for cool season grasses

               Allow plants to recover growing to 8” or taller before re-grazing.

Additional management strategies:

  • Limit exposure to hay to reduce consumption and waste however monitor cattle body condition score, much of the hay is low quality
  • Unroll hay daily for more animal access and to distribute animal impact and manure where you desire
  • Develop more paddocks to stretch forage supplies next year
  • Plant warm season forage
  • Stockpile grass as a reserve for drought and winter.
  • UT Extension recommendations:

 Next month’s timely tips will be on frost seeding but if you need to order seed consider this:

               Common recommendation:

                              Species                up to pounds/acre

White clover                     2

Red clover                         4

Annual lespedeza            8   on less productive soil


Optional additions

Forage turnips                  1

Arrowleaf clover               1

Hairy vetch                        2  ideally sown in the fall but will improve diversity

Annual ryegrass                2  not recommended by university forage agronomist too competitive

Matua or Persister

Bromegrass                      2   ideally sown in the fall but establishes easy particularly adapted to high fertility shady areas


Fertilizing and Nutrient Cycling in Pastures

Fertilizing and Nutrient Cycling in Pastures

As I drive across the state I see a lot of broomsedge an indicator plant of low fertility. However it is not always lime that is lacking.  It is often times P2O5 or even K2O.  Bottom-line is take a soil test, even if you don’t plan to apply nutrients now. A soil test sets a benchmark now future soil test monitor how your management is affecting fertility. See University of Tennessee Soil testing site 

If you plan on implementing “High Density Short Duration Grazing” test organic matter as well that is how you are most likely to build organic matter.  Organic matter has tremendous benefits, the main benefits being increased water holding capacity and improved nutrient cycling.  Nitrogen is not test for by the lab but recommendations are returned with the soil test.  If you apply nitrogen in the spring count out establishing clovers, don’t even apply 30 lbs N.  If you have 30% or more clover already established omit nitrogen.  In Tennessee pasture systems have too much spring growth anyway September is the time to apply N on tall fescue pasture.


What about recycling nutrients: 


  • one ton of hay has 45-12-45
  • a cow consumes roughly 5 tons of hay per year
  • 5 x (45-12-45) = 225-60-225
  • Surface applied we lose half of the nitrogen (112-60-225)
  • 70 to 90 % of nutrients cycle through the cow and are returned to the land or water
  • Depending on grazing and hay feeding system 2% to 90% hits the pasture
  • Water distribution: if travel distance to water is 800’ or less grazing utilization and nutrient distribution is good.
  • Shade: if limited shade is available 20% less manure hits the paddock


Let’s assume a 3 day rotation (actually rotate when grass is 4”-3” tall), good water distribution, decent shade, and hay fed on pasture not in woods, streambank or feed pad.


  • 112-60-225 = 100 % of nutrients after volatilization of N in forage (really nutrient concentration is higher because this is based on grass hay more mature than pasture and no clover)
  • Take away 20% of nutrients used by the cow 90-48-180
  • In a 3 day rotation it is logical to assume manure distribution = grazing distribution a conservative figure is 65% = 59-31-117
  • Now how many acres is the cow covering in a year?  Let’s figure 3 ac/cow 20-10-39/yr = 69 lbs of nutrient x $0.50 = $35/ac returned to pasture per year on 100 acres that’s $3500/yr these are very conservative numbers.
  • A Grass/Clover maintenance recommendation for medium testing soil is 0-30-30, all that is short in this example is phosphorus.  Remember to base any application on soil test results and recommendations.
  • Legumes contribute additional nitrogen: 60 to 80 lbs N/ac if you keep 30% cover in legumes.