Preparing for Spring:
A Pre-Turnout Checklist
By Susan Beal, DVM
Added March 10, 2015. Sitting here, listening to the wind roaring through the hemlock grove behind my wee house, with the temperature solidly below zero and several feet of snow piled up, even in the protected timber, it seems odd to be writing about spring turnout. While we know that the land is still percolating under the snow cover, and we see the lengthening days, on days like today it can be difficult to envision the perennial miracle of the return of grass.
If you’ve not already put some thought into it, this is a great time of year to jot down a few notes and make a checklist to ensure you’re ready for turnout. That time will come quickly – and will be sooner for some than for others. Here in Pennsylvania, the differences between the northwestern and southeastern corners of the state are incredible – with turnout varying between late March and mid- May. Some graziers (primarily beef herds) have been able to extend their grazing season into late January (even here in the west central region).
Some of my before-turnout checklist notes follow; they emphasize what is important to me, what are priorities in my management and overall goals. I will enjoy hearing what’s on your checklist. Please feel free to write or email me – or better yet, post on Odairy list or send your notes to Nora Owens, NODPA News Editor, so she can collect them for a follow-up article. My list will not be your list and I know we’re going to learn from one another.
I’m not going to delude you – charting a grazing plan takes some thought and time. Folks who have made grazing plans in the past will find that each subsequent year’s plan gets easier to do because you’ve got some records and notes about how the reality of the plan actually happened. It’s easy to do with some coaching from in-person mentors or some help from references that take you step by step through the process.
Planning your grazing rotations and timing – and, importantly, basing that timing on ensuring the pastures are fully recovered before turning any stock back onto them – will really force you to consider many aspects of your farm and overall farm plan. It will help you calculate the amount of forage on the farm, it can help direct a plan to sow annuals and cover crops, and it will help you plan forward.
One of the misunderstandings about planned grazing is that the plan is in stone and must never change – and that any change negates the value of the plan. In fact, we plan to the best of our abilities, and then we amend the plan, as we need to while working in the structure and framework of the actual planning process. Plan in pencil – and write the actuals in ink. Year to year records will really help get a broader sense of the ongoing and evolving dynamic of the farm.
One of the pitfalls I often see when folks start making a grazing plan is using the same recovery period all season. In my experience recovery periods vary throughout the season. They may be as short as fourteen days in the early season to as long as sixty or more days in the late season.
It’s important to remember that the recovery period begins when all stock is off the land. If you run chickens after cattle, for example, then the recovery period begins when the chickens leave, not when the cattle leave. And if you have large paddocks that are subdivided but not back-fenced between moves, the recovery period begins when the cattle cannot access the paddock…. not when they move from subdivision one to subdivision two. If the recovery period is twenty days, then the stock are going to need twenty-one places to be in that time.
Grazing planning references:
Biological monitoring is an inherent part of the pre-turnout checklist. Sure, you’ll be measuring grass height and maturity but you should also be on the lookout for other things happening on the land. Is there evidence of relative overgrazing? What is the plant density and species diversity? Is that changing over time?
Is there evidence of excess water movement? Is there evidence of relative over-rest?
Biological monitoring may also involve taking soil samples and forage samples and plant sap samples. The timing of those samples will be influenced by the information you want to gain and how you want to employ that information. Your checklist should make some notes about what you want to do – and when – as well as what diagnostic labs you want to use. I encourage folks to do more than dry chemistry soil samples, to look at trace minerals as well as the macronutrients, and to consider sampling the deeper soil profiles at interval.
There is some very exciting work being done around measuring the soil’s ability to hold and move carbon. It’s evident from this work that the deeper soil profiles in biologically active soil hold a great deal of carbon – and appreciating that capacity may be missed if you only sample the top six inches of things. Peter Donovan and his growing team of citizen/farmer scientists are involved in a marvelous open-source project that is monitoring carbon dynamics over time. He’s not advising any particular prescription for land use – but simply recording what happens over the longer term by taking sequential measurements of dynamic biological systems.
Once you’ve worked on your grazing plan and reviewed your biological monitoring plans, then plans for seeding and field use and crop varieties and such will become more evident. You’ll know that you might need to bump up your use of summer annuals, or that a particular paddock might benefit from some additional biology, or that you want to integrate a different cover crop mixture into an specific area on the farm. If we don’t write those things down, we forget – and the records are lost from year to year.
This is also a great time of year to think about integrating some medicinal hedgerows in the farm scape – and also planting some medicinal plants such as calendula, comfrey, dandelion, plantain and brambles. Some of these can be part of the diversified pasture, some can go in alleys and hedgerows and others can be placed in flowerbeds, family gardens or up against a shed or building.
The planning you’ve been doing thus far will also have you thinking about fences and fencing.
Do the plans you’ve made make sense with the current fences on the farm? Are there changes that could be made that could improve land use or stock movement, enhance regeneration, and solve erosion or water movement problem? What’s the best timing for any changes that you might want to be making? Should they be a priority when you look at all the other things that need to be done on the land?
Minimally, you’ll want to make sure that you’ve walked the perimeter and any permanent fences to check for breaches, snow and ice damages and damage from animals and man. Every year it seems that the two-leggeds do more damage to my fences than do the animals. You also want to make sure you’ve checked reels and wire and posts and other fencing supplies so that you’re good to go when you actually get the cows out there. And you want to check and make sure there is sufficient power to those fences.
This is a great time to check chargers; make sure you have spare fuses, ensure the battery in your fence control unit is up and running, and make sure that things are functional, safe and effective.
And, speaking of fencing and chargers, does anyone on the group need to have some training around hot wire and the manner in which it works? One of the real worries I hear from some dairymen is the wonder if their cows will respect the fence. This is a great time of year to have some simple lessons in closed quarters where escapes are not going to cause huge problems. Please make sure that the stock has ample opportunity to move freely and escape a shock and that they are not so tightly jammed that they are forced to take an undeserved shock.
This is also the time of year to think about your watering systems. What works, what did not? Is the layout done optimally? Is there a way to maximize the accessibility to adequate clean, fresh water on pasture without a lot of walking, waiting or jockeying for space? How can you maximize the use of available water without deteriorating other aspects of the environment? Do you need to make a note to send a water sample for testing? Depending on your circumstances, water tests might include more than simple E. coli and coliform counts. It may be appropriate for you to test for heavy metals, contamination from shale gas development, glyphosate and other agrichemicals.
This is also a good time of the year to make sure the herd is where they need to be as far as foot care is concerned. Cattle use their feet differently when they are inside when compared to outside – whether on bedded packs, on concrete or on other surfaces, including sand. You’ll see different patterns of growth and wear as the seasons and housing and husbandry changes. It’s a whole lot easier for most folks to have the hoof trimmer come and work when the cattle are close to the barn than when they are out and about on pasture, even if they come to the barn to milk. Once they are out on pasture, we want to maximize their time eating and cudding…. and not have them confined to wait for their turn on the tilt table.
This is also a good time of year to tend to the myriad of other health care chores, each of which will vary markedly with the farm and their goals and practices. If you are vaccinating or doing any routine blood work, is this something that you could schedule now? Are there cows with extra teats that need to be nipped? Are there any leftover dehorning or castration chores that need to be done? While we don’t want to combine cold stress, weaning stress, and the stress of the long cold winter with the stress of those manipulations and activities, often it’s appropriate to get them done while the temperature is moderate and the flies are not yet active.
If you’re not on a regular herd health program with your veterinarian, does it make sense to think about doing breeding checks at this time of year?
This is also the time of year to look at your program (or lack of program!) around minerals and special needs supplements. Do the animals have adequate basic and special needs supplements for the transition time? Depending on the manner in which you feed mineral and other supplement, this might mean making sure the TMR has been adjusted correctly or making sure that you have the specific minerals in the free choice boxes that are often consumed during this time.
I always like to see these cattle have access to Magnesium as well as the other macro (and micro) minerals at this time of year. We also see that many animals will take some extra Sulphur on the cusp of the changes at either end of the seasons.
We know well that stock will have different nutritional needs as they move to grass from stored feeds. This is the time to begin to schedule visits with the folks who provide your service in nutrition so they can work with you to formulate rations that are appropriate for the class of stock and the time of year.
Fresh growing lush and washy grass often sets things up for grass tetany (hypo magnesium tetany) as well as protein-energy imbalance. I like to make sure the stock has access to dry hay, certainly before turnout – but also on the pasture if that’s possible. I’ve found that cows on pasture, trying to self correct (an amazing ability if we’d simply provide them the choices they need and then stay out of their ways), will typically choose a grass hay of so so (or even lousy!) quality.
While some nutritionists tend to preload cattle with magnesium, fearing the worst, my preference is to allow them to self-select to meet their individual needs. For those of you who know me, you know that’s my preference for a wide range of micro and macronutrients. Even if you are working with a well-formulated TMR, my experience has been that you will often find individuals who will have shifting day-to-day needs that are not met by that formula.
You’ll need to figure out how best for the stock to access these supplements, too. Do you have enough feeders and space for them to take that which they need without being pushed or rushed?
This is also a great time of year to take a look at your medicine chest and make sure you’ve got what you need there. Restock medicines and remedies, certainly, but also think about the things that you might be called to treat as the seasons change and make sure you have things on hand.
This is a great time of year to make sure that tags and identification is correct, installed and that any missing identification is updated. If folks are keeping identification and breeding and calving and heat cycle records in their heads, now is a great time to make the resolution to change that; the simpler the system, the better – because you’ll use it.
The vintage of the farmer might influence those choices, too. Those who are less grey than am I tend to love to keep records on the ever-present cell phone, while others of us might choose to use the calendar in the milk house or a big white board – or even put some of these records on a special place in the grazing planning chart.
As the snow starts to melt and the ground becomes exposed again, careful observation may show you places where there are erosion sites, particularly on laneways and paths, which may not be evident in drier weather. On a farm where I used to do some work, the movement of water off a long sloping hill was only evident in the early snowmelt. At other times of the year, that area was dry and firm – in spite of there being water inches deep moving across the land in early spring. And yes, there were some significant pasture management changes that could have improved the infiltration on that piece of land!
This might be a good time of year to add simple dams and diversions on sloping roads and laneways. One effective technique might be to bury a piece of belting on edge so that there is a foot or so under the ground and a couple of inches above the ground. Some folks will attach that belting to timber before burying it, others not. Of course, the best cure for that runoff is to eliminate it in the first place – not redirect it- but there are situations in which the two solutions might work hand in hand.
As the weather begins to open up and we start to be out and about more, this is a good time to take a look at the gates and handles that we’ve not used since last year. Are they sound? Do they need to be balanced? Tightened? Moved? Reinforced? Lubricated? Are the handles sound and insulated? Are they easy for everyone on the farm to open or are they only fair game for folks who can crush cans with one hand? And while we’re working on gates, spring is a good time to make repairs to those gates and doors that have been beaten up over the winter, sprung by snow and ice, jammed or knocked askew.
Other things to keep in mind as we move toward turnout will include the consideration of the need for any restraint or handling equipment in areas other than where those items are typically housed. And restraint and handling equipment does not necessarily mean chutes and gates, but also includes things like stock canes, halters, stock markers, heat detection devices,…. and calf jacks!
The need for shade always generates a great deal of discussion among farmers and animal welfare folks. My short answer of “It depends” will have some folks accusing me of fence sitting. We do need to realize, though, that most cattle we see in pasture panting are not panting because they are hot but are panting because they have an imbalance between energy, protein and forage volume. If we present the forage to them in an appropriate manner such that they are not forced to over-eat the protein rich parts of the plants to meet their energy and forage volume needs, then these animals will stop panting. And you’ll see the change within a few hours after you change the paddock size/timing of rotation so that they can make that selection.
Part of the planning process needs to consider things that may be unique to your farm, like pressure on young stock or specific species from predation, or your desire to have an open house, field day or customer appreciation day. If these things are priorities for your farm, now is the time to put them on the short list, so you can plan around and plan for them. Establishing a relationship with a mentor or support group, planning for self-care and working toward a quality of life that is important to you are also worthy items to place on your checklist.
And like all good lists, this list is only as good as the monitoring plan we have for it. Making a list and doing the tasks without assessing the value and usefulness of the task, but just doing the task because it’s on a list somebody made, makes no sense at all. It’s important that the items on your unique pre-turnout checklist meet the needs and priorities of your farm - and support the larger framework in which you make decisions and choices.
Dr. Susan Beal, DVM, Laughing Oak Farm, Punxsutawney, PA, can be reached by email at email@example.com.