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Grow more grass

Agriculture.com Staff 07/06/2010 @ 5:03pm

Imagine you have a choice piece of corn ground, capable of growing 200 bushels an acre. You manage it to grow 100. Not likely, is it?

Yet lots of people do that with pastureland. They let it plug along at half speed while it may have the potential for twice the return.

The issue is not economics. It doesn't cost nearly as much to fine-tune a pasture as it does a corn crop. No, better management is usually as simple as better timing of inputs and a change in attitude about pastureland not needing much help.

Rob Kallenbach and Justin Sexten, forage specialists at the University of Missouri-Columbia, think you can double productivity from some or all of your pastures, both in pounds of beef produced and profits generated. Then you could either double your cow herd on the same forage acres or maintain the same herd on half. It's a three-step process, they say: Grow more forage, use more of it, and waste less.

Here are their recommendations for achieving the first step in that process.

"Start with soil testing," says Kallenbach. "Fertilizer prices have more than doubled the last couple of years. So rather than put on the same fertilizer everywhere, I like to grid-sample and map my pastures. Some areas don't need fertilizer, some do. I want to target fertilizer strategically. Fertilizing the whole farm the same gets you about 50% efficiency."

He says that in well-managed areas where soil phosphorus and potassium are high, you probably don't need much added fertilizer.

"If the budget is tight, I'm still a limestone man," he says. "Soil pH impacts nutrient availability, so I like to add limestone where it's needed."

Then, Sexten says, you should visually appraise every pasture and take inventory of forage species growing in them. "If it's mostly a grass like fescue, that's not what I want," he says. "I want about 70% grass and 30% legume."

Legumes fix nitrogen in root nodules for a free source of fertilizer to surrounding plants. At 30%, legumes can usually supply all the nitrogen needed by the pasture.

"That level of legumes is just about your whole fertility program," says Kallenbach. "It's equivalent to supplying 100 pounds of nitrogen fertilizer per acre. But it's not like putting that 100 pounds on all at once in the spring; it's spread out over the whole growing season."

Imagine you have a choice piece of corn ground, capable of growing 200 bushels an acre. You manage it to grow 100. Not likely, is it?

The most consistent legume you can add to most Midwest and Great Plains pastures is red clover. Fairly easy to establish and relatively cheap, it's a great companion plant to cool-season grasses.

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