Pasture Management Enhances Productivity
When it comes to managing your pastures, you cannot afford to sit back and ignore this precious feeding ground.
"Even with increased pasture costs, it's still the cheapest feed available for the cow herd," says Denise Schwab, Iowa State University beef field specialist. When pastures are continually overgrazed, however, plants are weakened, many productive species die, and unproductive varieties take their place. Poor root systems allow for water runoff and that leads to erosion.
John Schulte, Marengo, Iowa, has firsthand experience with this type of ground. He recently bought a neighboring farm that included 32 acres of overgrazed and eroded pasture.
Because he treats his pastures like a hayfield, Schulte thought his newly purchased pasture could easily be converted to the yields he was experiencing on his farm.
"The pastures on my home farm are about as high yielding as a hayfield. I figured if I could do it up there, I could do it down here," he says.
But after conducting a pasture walk with Schwab, Schulte realized the ground would need far more work than he anticipated. Now it was Schulte's turn to impart his management style on the ground.
Since purchasing the land in 2007, he has backfilled eroded areas, interseeded the ground with alfalfa, installed a water system, and set up a rotational grazing system.
According to Schwab, there are three things farmers can do to improve the profitability of their pastures and to reduce the probability of overgrazing and erosion.
1. Build fences to provide rest to growing forages. Schwab says that moving from a continuous grazing system to a rotational system with four or five paddocks should increase forage utilization by 10% to 15%. Going to a system with more than five paddocks increases utilization by 15% to 25%. Continuous grazing only utilizes about 30% to 35% of the forage grown. "How many corn growers are willing to leave more than half of their harvest in the field? Yet we do just that with a continuous grazing system," Schwab says. She adds that forage stand and variety will also improve as forages are allowed rest time between grazing.
2. Control weeds and renovate the forage stand. Weeds need to be controlled (at least down to a spot-treatment level) before attempting to improve the forage stand. "Then overseed legumes into a straight grass stand. A stand with about a third legumes is equivalent to about 60 pounds of nitrogen fertilizer and should boost production 30% or more," she says.
3. Optimize fertility. Determine the nutrient level in the soil by testing it. Fertilize as needed. "Good grazing management rotates cattle to all parts of the pasture, thereby also rotating the manure and nutrient distribution," she says. "The majority of the nutrients removed by grazing are recycled back to the land in the form of manure, provided you have good distribution of grazing."
By implementing sound management practices, your pasture can provide good forage for years to come.