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Get your pasture back in shape

The drought didn't just hurt last year's crops. Much of the nation's pasture land was torched by the heat and dryness, forcing cattle producers to trim herd numbers in a major way.

But, moisture's growing more plentiful in at least part of the region hit by the drought last year, meaning pasture conditions should improve. But, there are things you can do to improve those conditions starting now.

The first thing's frost-seeding. If your pasture stands are still thin because of the drought, frost-seeding may be one way to build up grass stands, but only in some circumstances, says Pennsylvania State University Extension field crop systems specialist Mena Hautau.

"The freezing and thawing action of the soil works the seed into the soil. Legumes, especially clovers, have the highest success rate when frost seeding," Hautau says. "Some folks like to frost seed grasses. It generally is not recommended, as it fails most of the time. I would like to suggest that it’s all relative to the amount of ground that you need to frost seed. If you are insistent on frost seeding grasses, my question to you would be, 'How much are you willing to spend on seed?' One acre is not a big risk, but be cautious about frost seeding 100 acres with grasses."

Once temperatures rise above freezing, you can start conventional seeding. It's fairly common to rely on grass seed that may have been in the bag for a while. Before you go about putting that seed in the ground, make sure it's still going to germinate by conducting "rag doll" tests.

"Put 10 seeds in a moist paper towel and put it in a warm spot (like the top of the fridge). Keep the towel moist and wait to see how many seeds have germinated. Do this with several 'rag dolls,'" Hautau says. "Bump up your seeding rate accordingly. There is little sense in using seed that will not germinate! If you do make a seed purchase, do your homework and check seeding rates to make prudent purchases. Seeding rates should be increased when your equipment is less than ideal."

While you're paying attention to improving existing stands, think about other forages you can interseed with more conventional grasses. In Pennsylvania, spring oats make a good early rotational plant to seed into pasture.

"Where there are field rotation opportunities, plant spring oats for early grazing. This helps to 'extend' the existing cool-season pastures by providing more dry matter on the farm. Plant oats at 2-3 bushels per acres and graze when the plant is vegetative," Hautau says. "The same paddock could be used to plant a warm season annual (i.e. sorghum sudangrass) in late spring when the soils are warmer and be rotated again for a permanent pasture seeding in late summer/early fall, which is the optimum time for seeding permanent pastures."

Once your pasture stand is established, maintenance doesn't stop. Think about how long you're grazing each acre, how you're rotating your animals and how those factors could influence growth later in the season.

"As the pastures come out of dormancy, think about the staging of animals in the rotation. The spring will bring on an exponential growth spurt of grass by mid-spring. In the first rotation, managers can move animals quickly through pastures and if possible, designate certain fields for hay to keep up with the 'spring flush,'" Hautau says. "Daily monitoring of pastures will be needed to keep ahead of the fluctuations in pasture growth during the coming months."

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