Grazing of Diverse Native Grasslands

While we do not have a "cookbook recipe" for grazing a diverse native planting, there are some goals and general guidelines that we would aim for. We think that in addition to the thoughts recorded here, it is very important to get out and see how other folks are grazing diverse native grasslands and learn from them. Visit us at our Pasture Walk to see how we are grazing our diverse native planting.

Traditional Establishment Plan

Spray glyphosate in fall, spring, and fall. Seed a diverse native mix in winter. For a more detailed establishment plan, see our Timeline: Establishing Diverse Native Grasslands for Grazing.

Year 1:Don't count on forage from the planting; rather, view the livestock as a management tool.
Goal: Open up the canopy and reduce competition for the small, developing native seedlings
Rules of Thumb:
  1. While the seedlings are small, grazing has the potential to do much harm to the stand if done improperly. If grazing is chosen as the method of opening up the canopy, keep in mind that the natives should not really be grazed off at all. Aim for the cows to take just one bite off of the weed plants (in other words, no plant has 2 bites taken from it). Another, more predictable option to open up the canopy is to brush hog the area at an 8" height; this option provides much more control than using grazing animals.
  2. Limit the grazing period for any particular area to no more than 2 days to avoid biting off regrowth, excessive trampling, etc. More animals on an area for a shorter period of time generally give more control over the grazing result.
  3. One to two grazes or brush hoggings should be adequate. They should be timed when the canopy of weeds begins to get closed in and small native seedlings cannot receive sunlight.
  4. Graze new plantings when the ground is firm; hoof prints should not be visible after the graze.
Year 2: There will probably be a small amount of forage to be gleaned this year, but again view grazing as a management tool and don't count on the forage.
Goal: Again, the aim is to open up the canopy and reduce competition, especially for the slow-to-develop warm season grasses.
Rules of Thumb:
  1. Usually grazing an area twice is about right. The first is usually timed in mid-late May and the second is usually mid-July, but time the grazings to achieve the goal of grazing the weeds.
  2. During these grazes, watch the native warm season grass plants (e.g. Big Bluestem, Indiangrass, Eastern Gama Grass, etc.) and do not allow them to be grazed below 8" the first graze and 10" the second graze. If the warm season grass seedlings are not readily identifiable, it is safest to not take more than one bite off of any plant in the field.
  3. Limit grazing for any particular area to no more than 2-3 days.
  4. Graze new plantings when the ground is firm; hoof prints should not be visible after the graze.
Year 3: Finally, some forage to count on! However, don't count on full production from the area.
Goal: This year the goals include forage production, promoting warm season grass development, and letting seed from cool season plants fall on the ground.
Rules of Thumb:
  1. Timing the first graze in May opens up the canopy for the warm season grasses to take off well. The second grazing is usually timed in July and the third after frost.
  2. Because the plants are still developing, a minimum of 60 days rest (more if conditions are adverse) between grazes is usually desirable.
  3. While grazing during the growing season, the native warm season grass height should be monitored. Do not allow these grasses to be grazed to heights less than 6-8".
  4. Grazing periods on any particular area should be limited to no more than 3-4 days per graze.
  5. Until there is a good sod formed by the root systems of the native plants (especially the grasses), the planting should only be grazed when the ground is firm; hoof prints should not really be visible after the graze.
Year 4+: Let's graze!
Goal: At this point, the stand should be fairly well established although many plants are not yet mature. The aims are now to get forage production, maintain and promote plant diversity, provide good wildlife habitat, and build up armor (thatch) on the soil to promote soil health.
Rules of Thumb:
  1. Vary the time of grazing from year to year so as not to favor any certain species of plants while hurting others.
  2. During the growing season, the goal is to graze but leave some factory (the leaves that produce food for the plant). In other words when grazing, leave plenty of leaf material to promote quick regrowth. Generally, this translates into the guideline that from about the beginning of June to the end of September, the warm season grass plants should be monitored to watch that they are not being grazed below 6-8". During the active growth period of the cool season plants, the grazing guideline is usually to leave 4"+ of above-ground growth; however the growth habits of some native cool season grasses (e.g. the Wild Ryes) are more upright and 8" may be more ideal in these instances.
  3. During the dormant season, the goal is to graze the stockpiled forage while ensuring that residue is left on the soil.
  4. A rest period of 45 days is usually the minimum. However longer rest periods are often needed and should be considered during a drought, unseasonably hot or cold temperatures, severe grazing in the previous graze that removed too much of the plant's "factory", or any other factor that leads to slow growth or regrowth of the plants.
  5. Until there is a good sod formed by the root systems of the native plants (especially the grasses), the planting should only be grazed when the ground is firm; hoof prints should not really be visible after the graze. Keep in mind that decreasing the density of livestock in wet times can help.
  6. Occasionally, seeds need to be allowed to fall on the ground for all species. For shorter lived species (e.g. annuals, biennials, other quick-to-establish forbs, and generally cool-season grasses), there needs to be a good amount of seed "stored" in the soil to replace the parent plants when they die. For longer-lived species such as many of the warm season grasses, seed does not need to fall on the ground as often.
  7. Always think about the previous pasture the animals were grazing in. If they were grazing seeds of a plant you do not want in the diverse native planting (e.g. fescue, sericea lespedeza, Johnsongrass, etc.), put them on another pasture to "clean out" their digestive tracts and hair coats for a couple days.
  8. Realize that a diverse native planting has many different plants of many different appearances and heights. Livestock graze each species of plant differently; some are grazed from the top down like a grass plant while others may only have the leaves removed from the stalk. The graze on a diverse native planting will not appear even, and the neighbors may even wonder why you have such a ragged looking weed patch. Keep in mind that other than hurting your image at the coffee shop, this appearance doesn't hurt anything and is actually really good for wildlife.