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The Green Grass of Spring

The Green Grass of Spring

How if Affects Calf Growth and Cow Breedback

What a joyful moment it is when we grass fed Devon producers see the first tips of green grass finally appearing across our fields each spring!  Our pastured poultry egg yolks turn nearly pumpkin orange with the vitamins, CLA’s, and omega 3s— and their taste is full and delicious.  Our pastured pigs spend their days nipping green shoots and turning up their noses at the hay that fed them all winter, anxious to regain their missing complement of A, D, and E fat soluble vitamins.   Our cattle dive for the first green shoots, ignoring last year’s hay that must still provide feed for them for another month or more.

So, why not just turn them out onto that delicious green grass as soon as it’s tall enough to graze?

Photo 1

Photo 1

Photo 1: (This lush green forage, full of clovers, can be the most dangerous for livestock.  High in protein, low in dry matter, it is most likely to create bloat and acidosis in cattle.  Put out unlimited salt, and move cattle to a new pasture when their rumens are full, and it’s late in the day.  By late afternoon plants have photosynthesized all day and created a lot of sugars in their tissues.  Higher sugars balance the high protein, and cattle are less likely to experience bloat as their rumens adjust.)

The green forages of spring are crucially important in rebuilding the vitamin balance of livestock of all breeds.  However, we risk forgoing long term health, weight gain in our growing young cattle, and high percentage breed back in our mother herd if we do not balance green and dry forages while grazing lush spring pastures.  Green grass and other lush free forages are high in protein, high in potassium, and high in water content compared to summer, autumn, and winter pastures and hay.   While potassium is crucial for healthy calving, that high protein and water content can lead to problems.

Many years ago, Native American tribes would slowly starve their prisoners with a “rabbit diet”.    Nowadays, the high protein Atkins diet, among others, is promoted for human weight loss.  Protein (meat, or pure free grass) requires caloric energy for digestion, whereas carbohydrates by the mouthful usually end up providing excess calories However, as Devon cattle producers, weight loss in our cattle is never in our plans, especially in our recovering mother cows post calving, or in our growing young heifers and bulls, or our grass-fed meat animals.

Photo 2

Photo 2

Photo 2: (While this grass is so tall that it’s hard to find the calves, the dry matter present in the fully developed stalks of each plant will help balance the green matter’s protein.  There is also a good complement of selenium in the seed heads of these plants– also incidentally a mineral crucial for good egg and sperm production in cattle.  Nature often matches demand with supply if seasonal breeding is followed.) 

So, how to plan for weight gain AND vitamin replenishment in our Devon cattle through the spring flush of forage?

The least expensive method in terms of human labor is to plan ahead and retain ungrazed pastures from the previous year’s growing season.  This method forces your cattle to graze both the old, high fiber dry matter and the fresh green grass in every bite, balancing the digestive fermentation in the rumen.  The green forages provide the fat soluble vitamins, proteins, and CLA and omega 3’s.  The dried grasses provide the crucial dry matter which slows down digestion and fermentation in the cow’s gut, and feeds rumen bacteria providing for better absorption of nutrients, and maintains weight gain in your animals.

If there is not sufficient acreage to retain ungrazed pastures from the previous year, then a lower protein hay can also be put out each day to supplement dry matter.  While the cows might turn up their noses at a daily feeding of hay they will usually quickly return to it after a day or two on exclusive green grass, understanding their own need for rumen roughage.  How much to feed?  Look at your budget.  Some is better than none, but don’t waste stored feed.

Photo 3

Photo 3

Photo 3:  (Yellow birdsfoot Trefoil and pink flowered Sanfoin are two legumes that can be grazed while lush and green.  Their alkaloids prevent the development of too much blood urea nitrogen (BUN) which normally would cause bloat.)

Watch your cows’ manure in spring— a simple and inexpensive “forage analysis” technique.  Too liquid?  Not enough dry matter!  While timely breed back is the ultimate proof of a good cow, animals in the herd with consistently dirty backsides are sending a message of sub-optimal digestive capacity and forage utilization.  Watch their calf production and breed back efficiency.  They will often pass along that sub-optimal digestive capacity to their daughters- again, watch and record.

When feed is balanced, mother cows regain weight dependably post calving and settle easily into their next pregnancy within the crucial  60-80 day past-calving window that profitable Devon cattle producers require.

Pure, soft, green, high protein forage can also be deadly.  All ruminant livestock are subject to both bloat and founder on lush feeds.  Although one old timer’s solution of haltering his foundered heifers and forcing them to stand for several days in a cold stream does work, it certainly isn’t feasible for a whole herd.  In the fescue-affected southern states, cattle found standing in ponds during the lush fescue season are doing just that- relieving sore, inflamed hooves by cooling off the heat of inflammation.  But sore-footed bulls won’t necessarily cover ground well to service available cows, and cows with inflammation and digestive upset won’t settle well, and finishing animals won’t gain well on washy forage.  Losing weight in a steer for even a couple of days will irreparably toughen the final beef product.

Luckily, the inflammation and potential bloat of green forages can be offset not only by dry matter feeds, but also by several relatively inexpensive supplements.  Adequate free choice plain white salt, cheaply available as NaCl, Sodium Chloride, has been shown to reduce bloat in cattle of all ages.  However, cattle will sometimes reduce their NaCl consumption below optimal levels when they reach their surfeit of the Chloride in plain white salt, which also binds/blocks Iodine sites within the body’s cells during metabolism.  Inadequate levels of Iodine will lead to poor breedback in cows.  I watched this graphically one time when a seemingly barren Jersey came to my ranch.  She had been bred three times by artificial insemination, had carried the pregnancy for 40-60 days, then aborted each time.  When she arrived she put her head into the Iodine box in my 12 part free choice mineral offerings and ate what I would consider to be a lethal dose of the Iodine mineral.  She  ovulated within 21 days after arrival, conceived with one unit of semen through artificial insemination, held that pregnancy to birthing, and gave her owner a healthy bull calf.  She knew what she was missing.

Photo 4

Photo 4

Photo 4:  (Putting out some dry matter in a lush green field is a good way to balance rumens in your cattle.  Don’t waste the hay, just put out what they’ll choose to consume.)

Livestock Soda, Sodium Bicarbonate, will provide that bloat-preventing Sodium in a more absorbable form.  It’s the same product that Arm & Hammer promotes for baking and indigestion, known as Baking Soda in the kitchen.  Excess Carbon is not a biological issue like excess Chloride.  I order it by the pallet and provide it free choice in the spring.  The cattle that need it use it every day.

Raw Apple Cider Vinegar, or its powdered concentrate, also works extremely well in preventing bloat.  In the human kitchen a little ACV and honey (which also contains enzymes that assist in digestion) will keep our own digestion comfortable and free of bloat.  Unpasteurized ACV put out free choice greatly assists our Devons in several ways.  First, the acids add to rumen acids, assisting in digestion.  Secondly, the beneficial bacteria present in this fermented food helps to sway digestive bacteria away from the harmful bacteria’s ability to cause sickness.  This is much like sowing one’s fields with good seeds, crowding out the potential weeds. Third, the Potassium present in Apple Cider Vinegar is needed pre-calving for a healthy birth.  Recently, a friend started to add ACV to her grass fed Jerseys’ drinking water.  Within a week, she felt concern— her Jerseys were not finishing their regular daily ration of hay!  Then she realized that they were digesting the hay better due to the enzymes in the ACV- and not needing as much hay.

So, enjoy the green grass of spring, and enjoy the weight gain and breed back potential of properly balanced nutrition in your cattle.  May the rain arrive on time, and the sun bring your fields to their full potential!

Written by Jenny Sabo (Harrison, MT) and all photos by Jenny

Submitted and edited by Roy