Early spring grazing is an early grassland management type done by grazing.
It is usually conducted on hay meadows as soon as the grazing starts and may have different purposes. Concerning pasture, it allows to extend the grazing season by gathering young grass on the earliest areas at low cost. As regards mowing, it helps maintain the quality of hay by putting off the developing stage of the grass in order to position the hay-making stage in a more favourable weather window. Early spring grazing consists in cutting the upper part of the grasses, keeping the future ear (reproductive meristem) rising in the stem.
This practice improves the tillering of grasses, promotes legumes by improving their access to light and allows the control of certain undesirable plant species (rumex obtusifolius L., Umbelliferae, …). Early spring grazing is a tactical mode to exploit forage areas. If the objective is to shorten the wintering period, it should only be done to compensate for the lack of grazing surface area resources (not clipped off). Performing this technique requires strong vigilance against trampling (soil compaction) as well as regarding the diet level (abrupt change in diet at the end of winter). If spring grazing occurs too late or lasts too long (the meristem then becomes too short), it suppresses the reproductive meristems. This is called “topping”.The resulting fodder will be rich in leaves (quality), but poor in stalks, which will strongly penalize the productivity of mowing meadows.
Early spring grazing is a grassland operating mode, a lever that can play both on grazing and mowing. It improves the pasture time period, fodder and protein autonomy of grassland systems while preserving plant diversity. It is therefore an important agroecological practice in extensive livestock systems.