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BCRC offers spring turnout suggestions 

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

By April, some spring-calving herds have the majority of their calves on the ground and many producers are beginning to make grazing plans for turning their herds out to spring pasture. 

The question of when to turn pairs out to pasture is important for every operation, but especially for those in areas with prolonged drought conditions who have dwindling haystacks or need to purchase feed. 

In a Feb. 28 article published by the Beef Cattle Research Council (BCRC), University of Alberta Rangeland Management Professor Dr. Edward Bork offers suggestions on how best to answer this question, noting aside from spring precipitation, how pastures looked in the fall may be the best indicator of how they will perform in the spring. 

“The better condition the pasture was in October, the faster it will recover,” he states. 

Reducing long-term drought impacts

When hay stocks are low and feed costs are high, it may be tempting for producers to turn their pairs out sooner than normal, but Bork cautions producers to be aware of potential long-term consequences. 

Instead, he encourages producers to consider holding off – sometimes even longer than they normally would – to give stressed pasture more time to recover. 

“By managing pastures cautiously in the short term, we can prevent having to deal with drought-related issues for the next 10 years,” Bork states.  

Deciding when to turn pairs out

When making the decision of when to turn pairs out, Bork recommends producers consider seven things. 

First, he notes producers should calculate their carrying capacity and be realistic with the amount of forage they have. Then, they can develop a grazing plan accordingly. 

Next, Bork suggests producers wait until the “three-leaf stage” before turning out their pairs.

“Using plant height is not a good way to determine readiness to graze, as plants can vary greatly by height, especially in the early stages,” reads the BCRC article. “Instead, wait until plants have three leaves to start grazing. This gives plants time to build the reserves they need for long-term survival.”

“A common grazing rule of thumb is for every one day you wait to graze in the spring, you save two days in the fall,” the council continues. 

Bork further notes it is important for producers to match their grazing plan with their pasture type.

If possible, he says producers should graze tame pastures before native pastures, as tame pasture is usually more tolerant to grazing stress and may be quicker to green up in the spring. 

He says producers should also pay attention to plant litter, which conserves rain and snow melt and contributes to forage reserve.

“Pastures with abundant litter will require less recovery and can be accessed earlier in the season than those where there is little or no litter remaining,” Bork explains. “Grasslands without litter may produce 25 to 60 percent less forage than grasslands with adequate litter. Pastures with reduced litter lose moisture through evaporation and runoff and are at a higher risk of sun and wind exposure.”

Additionally, Bork notes soil moisture levels can help producers decide when to turn pairs out.

“While snow can contribute to moisture recharge, this is not a certainty and may have a limited effect on forge recovery due to its tendency to evaporate – with chinooks, for example – or run off if soils are frozen,” he says.

“Up to 70 percent of our precipitation on prairies comes from rainfall in the growing season as opposed to snow, meaning each year our forage growth is closely tied to the occurrence of May and June rainfall,” he adds. 

Lastly, Bork says producers should look back on how forage as been managed in previous years, provide ample time for rest and recovery and be ready to adapt.

Making tough decisions

In the unfortunate instance producers are faced with drought conditions again, Bork reminds them pastures will benefit from extended recovery and encourages them to implement early steps in preventing long-term damage. 

To do this, he recommends using alternative feeds, such as soybean hulls, beet pulp, pellets, screenings and/or other feed sources to extend the winter-feeding season and utilizing annual forages, which may be grazed four to six weeks after seeding and can often be stocked pretty heavily to alleviate pressure on pastures. 

Further, Bork says producers might consider tightening their calving season and making some tough culling decisions. 

“By shortening up the breeding season and pulling bulls sooner, producers are selecting for cattle which rebreed earlier, tightening up their calving season and allowing them to take advantage of higher grass market prices for open heifers,” he shares. “This can help with culling decisions.” 

“Making the decision to cull is never an easy one but it can hep to reduce reliance on stressed pastures and aid in faster recovery,” he concludes.

Hannah Bugas is the managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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