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Spring Pasture Tip: Hold Up on That Fertilizer

You'll do your pastures and cows a favor this spring if you leave the fertilizer spreader in the shed, and pull out the drill or seeder.

It's not that your pastures don't need fertilizer. It's just that this is the wrong time of year to put it there. It's counter-productive to what you most want out of your pastures -- a lush mix of grasses and legumes that will provide good grazing during the cool and wet spring, as well as the hot and dry summer.

Some farmers have the logic that you apply fertilizer to crops as they start the growing season, in the spring. While that works fine for crops like corn or wheat, it doesn't work for pastures, where you are usually trying to get multiple crops to grow, says Rob Kallenbach, a forage specialist at the University of Missouri. When it comes to pasture management in the spring, "I'd rather put my money into clover seed," he said. Here's why.

Read more about pasture improvement in Get Pastures Off to a Good Start for Adequate Feed All Year.

Spring vs. Fall Applications

Take a typical Iowa-Missouri improved pasture that is roughly 70% tall fescue (a cool-season grass) and 30% red clover (a legume). The fescue does most of it's growing early in cool weather, then it pretty much stops growing in the heat of summer. It responds well to nitrogen fertilizer, but if you put the fertilizer on in the spring, you encourage additional lush fescue growth at a time that it is already growing rapidly anyway. And that growth crowds out clover or other legumes.

Rather, Kallenbach suggested that you use the spring as a good time to interseed or frost seed more clover. That helps keep the quality of the pasture forage mix high, and the clover adds some nitrogen to the soil. The clover plants are established by summer and can help maintain pasture quality through a hot spell.

Then, Kallenbach said, "I'd put the fertilizer on in the fall -- maybe starting in mid-August or sometime after that. If you get some fall rains, it will give your fescue a nice boost and help stretch your pastures farther," he said. "Fall fertilizer doesn't seem to hurt clover (or other legumes) stands as much. At that time, the grasses and legumes are growing together and not crowding each other so much."

Most pastures can well use 50-100 pounds of nitrogen an acre in the fall application, Kallenbach said.

Pasture Management Tips

Prepare a pasture budget going into the grazing season. You can do this by knowing your mix of forages, then estimating the production you expect each month of the grazing season. That can help you see how a change in the forage mix might better sustain production through the cool, then warm, then back to cool seasons. Put that chart next to the forage needs of the grazing livestock, and you can start to map out a way to stretch your grazing system so you will feed less hay or other purchased feeds. Kallenbach said that grazing is the cheapest way to feed cattle. In relative feed cost terms, hay costs about twice as much as pasture, silage and grains cost about three times as much, and dehydrated forages cost four times as much as pasture-based feed.

You can optimize pasture utilization by splitting them into paddocks and rotating them. Six to eight paddocks is typically enough in a cow-calf setting, and can achieve a 70+% pasture utilization rate. Continuous grazing usually is in the 30-40% utilization range. Even a two or three paddock rotational system is better than one big pasture, said Kallenbach.

Kallenbach is seeing some impressive results with interseeding of annual forages to corn or soybean crops before those crops are harvested in the fall. The annual forages (typically winter wheat or rye, seeded by airplane) will germinate and start to grow before the corn or beans are harvested. After harvest the annuals come through the residue and provide some great fall and winter grazing. "They're making use of the land at a time it usually is doing nothing," said Kallenbach. The young wheat or rye is very high quality feed, and stocker cattle can gain as much as 2 pounds per head per day without other feed supplement. "In some cases it seems to work better on beans than corn," he said. "With corn, there's a lot more residue for the forage to grow through."

You'll do your pastures and cows a favor this spring if you leave the fertilizer spreader in the shed, and pull out the drill or seeder.

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