Spring management


18 min read

Pasture-based systems Spring Rotation Planner Pasture surplus When to use supplements Additional resources

Pasture management is crucial for optimising dairy production. This page guides you on using the Spring Rotation Planner, which aids in managing pasture after calving. It highlights the importance of reaching your average pasture cover (APC) at calving to maintain feed demand and pasture growth. Furthermore, you'll learn about factors that affect a cow's intake or drive to eat and how to use pasture residuals as indicators of feed adequacy. The page also emphasises anticipating pasture surplus to manage feed quality, and the use of the feed wedge tool to manage pasture, plus it explains when and how to supplement minerals during spring. Additionally, it explores an alternative practice of pasture deferral and the benefits it can offer.

Pasture-based systems

This section will help you make pasture management decisions through calving to balance date (when feed supply meets feed demand).

In pasture-based systems, an optimum balance exists between daily pasture allocation and intake, and whole season performance. To achieve post-grazing residuals in spring (7-8 clicks), and promote maximum pasture growth and quality from the remainder of the season, a compromise is made between pasture growth and utilisation, and individual cow dry matter intake.

Using the Spring Rotation Planner

The spring rotation planner provides guidelines for allocating pasture to cope with the growing milking herd and the shrinking dry herd.  It helps to manage the speed of the first grazing rotation after calving, control the rate of pasture cover decline, minimise deficits and manage pasture quality.

Average Pasture Cover at calving

Achieving your target average pasture cover (APC) at calving is important for meeting feed demand, and for pasture growth rate and quality. APC at calving will determine how cows are fed for the first two months after calving, For more info see the APC at calving section on the pasture assessments page.

Graphing the average pasture cover you are targeting for your farm at any time between PSC and balance date means you can adjust your spring rotation planner for seasonal conditions that impact on pasture cover.

You can create an average pasture cover graph as part of the spring rotation planner tool.

Feed allocation from start of calving

From the start of calving the priorities are firstly the colostrum cows (as these are most prone to metabolic problems) then the milkers followed by the springers and dry cows. The fastest way to have metabolic problems like milk fever or ketosis is to have well fed springers and then underfed colostrum cows.

Feed intake potential at calving is significantly less than intake potential at peak. Cows can reach their peak milk production per cow in as little as 4 weeks after calving but peak dry matter (DM) intake potential is not reached until 7-10 weeks after calving.

Although there are some good rules of thumb for individual cow intake, the best indicators to use collectively to determine if feed allocation and intake are adequate in a pasture-based system are:

  • Post grazing pasture residuals
  • Changes in milk production and composition
  • Cow behaviour

Control of DMI in the early lactating cow involves many complex processes. There are several key animal and farm system factors that affect a cow’s intake or drive to eat. These include:

  • cow size and breed
  • stage of lactation
  • grazing time and behaviour
  • physiological feedback
  • feeding system
  • pasture quality

Using pasture residuals (the pasture remaining after a grazing event)

Pasture residuals are a good indicator of the adequacy of pasture offered (pasture allowance). Decisions on pasture allowance should focus on future pasture growth and quality, and optimising whole season performance. There is a compromise between future pasture growth and utilisation, and individual cow intake.

  • Avoid over allocating pasture: Achieve target residuals of 14-1500kgDM/ha with no clumps in the first rotation. In addition to high energy pasture being wasted when pasture is over allocated, there will also be negative effects on subsequent pasture quality and re-growth.
  • Avoid under allocating pasture: If post-grazing residuals are less than target, this indicates the cows are being underfed. Restricting pasture allowance to less than minimum cow requirements in early lactation will cause an immediate drop in milk production but the impact on whole season depends on timing, severity, and duration of the restriction. From a pasture perspective, there are no lasting negative impacts of grazing lower than target residuals once in early spring, provided pastures are given time to recover before the next grazing.

Trials indicate cows (calving at appropriate BCS) can recover from a short-term moderate feed restriction in early lactation (75% of requirements/ residual 2.7cm for 14 days) with no negative effects on whole season production. If the restriction is more severe or the restriction lasts for a longer period, then there are both short and long term negative effects on milksolid production.

See Pasture allocation for more information.

Sequence of events following on from over-allocation of pasture


Decisions to use supplement feed during this period should consider the severity and duration of the feed deficit and the predicted response to supplement.

Feed additional minerals if required during spring

In addition to the main minerals that may be required in early lactation (calcium, and magnesium) there are five trace elements that are likely to be deficient in grazing dairy cows and are recommended for supplementation for 2-3 weeks pre-calving until 4 months post-calving.

These are copper, cobalt, selenium, iodine, and zinc. Consult a veterinarian to determine mineral requirements in your herd.

Pasture surplus

Identifying and managing pasture surplus early and maintaining good quality pasture through good grazing practices is key to maximising late spring and summer milksolids production.

Feed wedge

After balance date the feed wedge is the best tool to manage pasture. A feed wedge shows the current pasture situation by ranking the paddocks based on average pasture cover. It allows you to make proactive decisions to manage a surplus or deficit.

  • Data for a feed wedge should be obtained from a weekly pasture assessment where pasture is measured.
  • Pastures are then ranked from highest to lowest. Adding a target line makes it clear where there is likely to be a surpluses or deficit in feed.
  • The wedge identifies the grazing plan for the next round in terms of the sequence in which paddocks will be grazed.
  • A feed wedge allows you to identify and anticipate a surplus (or a deficit) 10-14 days in advance

Identifying a pasture surplus

Surplus management is one of the greatest skills of pasture management and is critical to maximise pasture eaten and feed quality. A temporary pasture surplus, if not managed, allows ryegrass to grow to form stem and seed head, resulting in lower pasture quality.

Pasture management in late spring is based around providing high quality feed to the cows. Grazing residuals drives pasture quality and when growth exceeds demand, residuals will rise unless this surplus is managed.

Surplus management is all about anticipation. To get surplus management right requires weekly pasture assessment to predict feed surpluses before they happen.

Why identify early?

Identifying pasture surplus early allows better management of a surplus, including decisions around rotation length, removal of supplements and the number of paddocks to shut up. It also provides time to organise a contractor and therefore better control silage quality.

It is critical to anticipate in advance the length of the closed period and associated risks. These include:

  • shutting up too much area for too long and restricting future milk production (higher risk with higher stocking rates)
  • managing silage quality. After the pasture has passed target grazing residuals, the quality will decline at an average rate of 0.3 MJME/kg DM for each week of closure. Try to harvest silage within 42 days of the last grazing.

For information see the surplus management page.

Pasture silage

Pasture silage is an important source of supplementary feed on New Zealand dairy farms. The better the silage’s quality, the higher the milksolids (MS) production and body condition score (BCS) gain in cows.

Key points:

  • Pasture cut for silage must be of high quality.
  • Grazing residuals should be 1500-1600kg DM on paddocks to be closed for silage.
  • Silage paddocks should be closed for no longer than six to seven weeks.
  • Cutting, packing and covering the stack must be done quickly to reduce spoilage losses. Some inoculants can improve the fermentation process.
  • Take care to minimise losses both at the stack and in the paddock/feed pad.

Making the right decisions with spring pasture

There are many factors that contribute to growing good pasture in spring.

Good-clover ryegrass mix

Good clover-ryegrass mix is vital for productive pastures.

  • The core elements of productive pastures are best met by mixtures of ryegrass and white clover.
  • When clover comprises between 10 and 40 percent of total dry matter (DM) in summer, there are gains in DM of between 1.4 and 3.4 t DM/ha per year.
  • Yield gains come mostly in summer, when extra feed grown has high economic value.
  • White clover generally requires higher levels of soil nutrients than ryegrass – especially phosphorus, potassium, sulphur and sometimes magnesium and molybdenum.
  • Excessive focus on nitrogen (N) fertiliser and failure to meet the soil nutrient requirements of white clover in recent years have inhibited clover growth and compromised pasture productivity.

For more information, read the September 2016 Tech Series article ‘Good clover-ryegrass mix – vital for a productive pasture.’

Maintaining good quality pasture through grazing management

Spring grazing management influences the amount and quality of pasture grown later in the season.

  • Pasture quality is optimised when pastures are grazed between the 2 and 3-leaf stage of regrowth, and grazed to residuals of 3.5-4cm (or 7-8 clicks on RPM).
  • Good pasture management in spring increases tillering in perennial ryegrass.

For more information, read Making the right decisions with spring grazing (Technical Series September 2016).

Transition: spring to summer (November and December)

Pasture response relevant to ryegrass persistence

  • Development of reproductive tillers and flowering peaks
  • Rates of tiller death and replacement peaks
  • Soil seedbank: summer-active grass weed seeds germinate and establish in pastures.

Good management: improved persistence

  • N fertiliser applied at 30kg N/ha after each grazing. This helps development of new tillers and reduces tiller population decline during summer
  • Where a summer moisture deficit is likely, a lower grazing frequency is needed to allow for slower leaf development. A gradual reduction in grazing area per day is needed. Achieve this without lowering the grazing residual
  • Grazing area offered per day on January 1: approximately 80 percent of the area offered on November 1. Change from a 20 to a 30 day rotation
  • Supplements fed if changing rotation lowers grazing residual below seven clicks. Alternatively, de-stock.

Bad management: reduced persistence

  • Grazing residuals more than the consistent level previously determined in the spring
  • This can elevate growing points, potentially exposing them to grazing at the next grazing.
  • Reduced height of grazing residual compared with spring indicates underfeeding occurring and a threat to the growing points of existing and developing tillers
  • Grazing to a lower residual than the previous grazing.

Recommended rotation length

Shift from 20 towards 30 days.

Recommended grazing residuals

Note: grazing residuals are expressed as height in clicks, as measured by the rising plate meter based on the winter formula.

  • No more than eight clicks (1600kg DM) on the rising plate meter. Target is seven clicks (1500kg DM).
  • Achievement of consistent grazing height at each grazing is important
  • If fewer than seven clicks (1500kg DM), feed supplements to maintain herd intake.

When to use supplements

Find out when supplements should be introduced as a tool to help maintain a slow rotation.

Tips for feeding supplement

  • Ensure all feed allocated to your herd is of high quality this spring
  • High quality pasture contains more energy than many supplements
  • Scrutinise any supplement use – ensure you are getting a real benefit - do the sums
  • Use supporting resources to ensure your information is correct.

Response to supplements

Look for every opportunity to reduce wastage when feeding supplements; this improves milk production responses and helps bring down the cost of the feed eaten. It also makes feed reserves last longer.

When grazing residuals are less than seven clicks on the rising plate meter (1450kg DM/ha), supplements are an option. The return from supplements depends on the payout, the severity and length of time of the feed deficit, and the quality and utilisation of the supplement as shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Response to supplement offered (purchased) in spring

Response Residuals & APC Supplement Other
g/kg DM 11ME
>0 to 30 9.5 clicks or 1800kg DM/ha. At or above APC target Quality < 10.5 ME; Wastage 30% plus (fed in wet weather; poor stack mgt) Pasture quality in subsequent rotations poor & less pasture grown
40-55 8-9.5 clicks (1600-1800kg DM/ha); stop feeding at target APC Average quality 10-10.5 ME; Wastage 25%-30% Supplement feeding stopped too late creating surplus
60-80 6.5-7.5 clicks (1350-1550kg DM/ha if supplement not fed; residuals <8.0 clicks when supplement fed Good quality 10.5-11.0ME; Wastage 20% or less Short term feed deficit (<10days). Supplement feeding stopped before APC cover target achieved
90-130 Residual < 6 clicks (1350kg DM/ha) if supplement not fed. When supplement fed residuals 6-7 clicks (1350-1500kg DM/ha); APC well below target (> 300kg DM/ha deficit) Good quality > 10.5 ME Low wastage 15% or less (feeding maize or PKE in bins/on feed pad) Cows grazing to < 6 clicks for 10 days plus; supplement feeding stopped in anticipation of target cover being met. Responses increase with the period of severe underfeeding  (8.0g/ME at least 2 weeks; 10g/ME 4 weeks; 12g/ME 5 weeks)
Last updated: Sep 2023
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