Grazing winter pastures for short periods early in the growing season won’t hurt, and may even help, their productivity, says Robin Salverson, a South Dakota State University Extension cow-calf field specialist.

Winter pastures are an integral part of many cow-calf operations in South Dakota, providing valuable grazing along with protection from seasonal weather, Salverson points out. Many ranchers avoid grazing them during the growing season to protect production.

"A lot of people think they should only graze them during the winter and only in the winter, and in reality, grazing them early in the growing season does not affect production for future growth," she says.

Grazing cool-season winter pastures in early spring can actually boost production, as clipping stimulates future growth, indicates a three-year study at western South Dakota experiment stations. 

"We have healthy root structures, which allows for the grass to grow and take in nutrients and allows them to have production later in the growing season," she says.

Salverson recommends grazing winter pastures for a short time only in early May, letting livestock clip the top of the grass plants.

"Get them on there and graze it so only the top half of the forage is grazed off and then remove those cows.”

Producers need to be cautious about grazing later in spring and summer.

"If you get too late into the season you are going to impact production later," she says.