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Get Pastures Off to a Good Start for Adequate Feed All Year

It may be a little late in the season for frost seeding pastures, but you can still put that drill to good use. Spring is the perfect time for pasture improvement.

If you have an existing stand that just needs a pick-me-up, adding legumes that will provide plenty of nutrition through the dry summer months may be what you need.

“If you’re looking for more diversity, this is a good time to address that,” says Joe Sellers, Iowa State University Extension beef specialist. Clover and some grass mixes will have a chance to get started after heavy grazing last fall.

Fertilizer Applications

And hold off on the nitrogen for now on fescue pastures. Sellers say phosphorus and potassium may be needed, but it’s best to save the nitrogen for later in the season. Excess nitrogen in the spring can increase alkaloids in fescue and reduce performance. Spring applications of nitrogen on other tall grass species may be effective. 

As new interseeded forages emerge, the existing grass needs to be grazed to reduce competition. Once the clover or other legumes are established in your stand, they will add nitrogen to the soil, and help maintain pasture growth through the hot season. 

Research shows 40 to 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre to fescue pastures applied after August 1 will offer the greatest benefit for late-summer and fall grazing and winter stockpiling. University of Nebraska grazing research shows you get 1 pound of calf weight gain for every pound of nitrogen fertilizer applied, as long as you don’t exceed the maximum recommended application.

Of course, the first step to any pasture fertilizer routine is soil testing, identifying exactly what nutrients are needed for that particular stand of forage.

Examine a Pasture’s History

Aside from the nutrient profile, it is best to look at pasture improvement in terms of past use. Was your pasture formerly crop ground, and you want to revert back to grazing land? Have you overgrazed or overhayed and need to restore the ground to its more productive state? Is it introduced pasture, meaning the forage plants have been planted there? Or is it native grassland that is simply old and tired?

Introduced pastures generally respond to proper fertilization, weed control, and grazing management. The longer a pasture has been overgrazed, the longer it will take to recover. Assessing the mix of plants in the field will help determine if additional seeding is a cure, or if allowing recovery time will get a good growth response and plant diversity.

That puts grazing management at the top of your list of moves to make to improve pasture quality and nutrition.

Deciding When to Graze

First of all, do not put stock out to pasture in the spring before the pastures are ready. Do the simple cow-tongue test. Just as the cow wraps her tongue around the plants and pulls them to her mouth, grab a handful of plants. If they pull out by the roots rather than breaking off above the ground, the pasture, especially new seeding, is not yet ready for grazing.

Also keep in mind the damage a herd can do compacting wet soils.

Once the pasture is ready for action, the experts suggest rotating between haying and grazing.

Rotation Plan

Bruce Anderson and Jerry Volesky of Nebraska Extension, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, add in their publication UNL Beef Profit Tips: “If your pastures aren’t already subdivided into at least four paddocks, your fertilizer dollar might be better spent on developing more cross-fences and watering sites. With continuous grazing, only 25% to 35% of the grass your pasture produced will end up in the mouth and stomach of your livestock. This will significantly reduce the economic return on any fertilizer applied.”

Sellers says a rotation plan that moves stock weekly is a good start, but more frequent movement and adequate recovery between rotations is better. Some producers will swear by more time on each paddock, some less. Some suggest mimicking an aggressive hay-harvest schedule with grazing.

Sellers emphasizes a grazing system that fits into the producer’s overall operation – and lifestyle. “Good grazing management works for the producer and his life and his grass,” says Sellers. “The important thing is to leave adequate residual grass height, have a significant recovery period, and not put livestock back on too soon.”

All agree it is best to leave a 4-inch stand of grass. Grazing or cutting grass too short will limit plants’ ability to collect sunlight and develop strong root systems, ultimately reducing yield.

Sellers recommends haying pasture ground if it is not needed in the regular rotation to remove excess growth and maintain forage quality. If some paddocks are hayed, then nutrients will be removed and need to be replaced with fertilizer or other sources. He also warns against the urge to overgraze under drought conditions.

In all cases, your stocking rate is perhaps the most crucial factor. The more often you rotate, and the better you manage grass height, the more you can increase production and carrying capacity. Producers who have implemented adaptable managed grazing see improvement over time in plant diversity and production.

With a diverse mix of plants and good grazing management, that pasture improvement plan you implement this spring will provide your livestock with adequate feed and nutrition all year long.

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