Quality pastures require planning
As mud season approaches, the formula for pasture problems is simple. Mature-cow weight plus hoof action plus dormant pasture plants plus soft, wet soil equals nothing good, if the goal is to keep the pasture sod in good condition.
• Now is the time to evaluate your pastures and plan for improvements.
• Severely abused or sacrificed pastures must be completely re-established.
• Adding legumes can help improve the protein levels of grass paddocks.
In fact, depending upon how soft the soil is and how much hoof action there was — as determined by the number of hooves and the amount of time they were in an allotted area — the result could be mud and the destruction of the sod base. In less intense areas, the result might be some chewed up or pugged up soils with enough sod base left to ensure this will once again be a productive pasture paddock when the growing season returns.
In either case, the pasture manager should be making plans now for what is needed to improve, renovate or re-establish various paddocks. I think of this as three separate management approaches.
Pasture improvement involves the least amount of change. Typically this involves adding a legume component to a predominantly grass pasture.
Pasture renovation is considered where the pasture manager is not satisfied with the mix of grass and legume plants and/or where the goal is to bring some new genetics into the pasture mix or possibly to repair some areas that have been trampled during the winter. It requires more planning and work.
Pasture re-establishment is generally necessary in those areas that have been severely trampled over the winter and where the sod base has been destroyed. It requires the most planning, time and dollars to accomplish.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these pasture management methods.
Although all of these will improve pasture, in this article I am considering pasture improvement more as the idea of tweaking or fine-tuning what is already there. This is a pasture paddock that is working, but with some minimal effort and expense can be raised to the next level. As I already stated, this is usually accomplished by adding legumes to a predominantly grass pasture. Legumes help boost the protein and energy values of the grass sward. They also fix nitrogen, and when they are present at a level of about 30% of the stand, evenly distributed, they provide the nitrogen needed by the grass plants, as well. Synthetic N fertilizer is not needed.
The density or cover of that grass pasture determines the seeding method that can be used to add the legume. If the cover is thin enough so there are bare patches of soil between grass plants, then the paddock might be a good candidate for frost seeding. If the sod cover is too heavy and can’t be opened up enough for frost seeding, then a no-till drill is the best option.
Frost seeding involves broadcasting seed over a pasture area and letting the natural freeze-thaw cycles of late winter and early spring help move the seed into good contact with the soil. If the seed can’t get down to the soil surface because of sod cover, then frost seeding will not work. Late February through March is generally a good time to consider frost seeding in our area.
The two most popular legumes to frost seed are red and white clover. Annual lespedeza also might be considered, but it is a light seed and needs some open soil in the grass sod for successful seed and soil contact. One technique that might improve seed and soil contact and increase the chance of frost seeding success is to broadcast the seed and then allow some light hoof action in the area to help work the seed into the soil. Wet soils and heavy cows are too much and can bury the seed too deep. Sheep do a good job, so maybe calves or stocker-weight cattle could be used.
I’m defining pasture renovation in this article as going beyond the need to add a legume component to a satisfactory grass sod. In this instance, the goal is to improve the grass component and add legumes. Grasses do not frost seed well, so pasture renovation will require a no-till drill. As in the frost seeding situation, the area to be renovated should be grazed down hard or tight to the soil in preparation for the seeding.
I encourage pasture managers to spend some time studying forage trial results and talking to representatives of various forage seed companies. Some impressive improvements have been made in forages over the past decade. Both grass and legume species have been developed specifically to do well in grazing situations. There are varieties with improved disease, drought and grazing frequency resistance. Varieties have softer leaves, increased palatability and more spreading type of growth habits — again, more conducive to grazing situations. Make sure the no-till drill is properly calibrated and set up. Seeding depth should not be more than one-quarter inch. Plan on completing seeding before mid-April.
Pasture re-establishment, as I am using it in this article, is really starting over in a pasture paddock. It may be necessary in an area that was severely abused in the winter period, sacrificed to save other pasture paddocks from extensive damage. It will require some type of tillage to level out ruts and prepare a seedbed for planting. It could be done in two steps, depending upon the need for forage and grazing on the farm and the composition of the previous sod base.
If some late-spring or early-summer grazing is needed from this paddock and if the previous sod base was infected fescue, then tilling/leveling the area in late March and seeding a forage oat or winter wheat should provide some grazing in 45 to 60 days after seeding. Another option would be to add a brassica, such as a forage turnip, to the oat or wheat seeding. It should be possible to get a couple of grazing passes from this type of seeding, and it also will help prevent any of the previous infected fescue base from firmly re-establishing. In late summer, the stand can be killed off using glyphosate, which also will help kill any fescue that may have re-established, and then the paddock can be no-till seeded with an improved pasture mix. See my previous comments regarding reasons to consider some of the new pasture plant genetics.
On a final note, I recently received a phone call from a farmer who had been looking at clover seed. He noticed on the seed tag that the germination test had been done in 2006, and at that point, the germination was 80%. He asked for a sample of the seed, took it home and did a germination test using paper towels. He calculated the current germination was somewhere in the 65% range. The message here is to pay attention to seed labels, evaluate germination rates, and when you are seeding, adjust the seeding rate to take into account germination rates under 100%.
Now is the time for pasture managers to evaluate paddock condition and make plans for pasture improvement, renovation and re-establishment. For more information regarding selection of grasses and legumes to include in a pasture mix and seeding rates, contact your local Ohio State University county Extension office, or plan to attend an upcoming pasture management workshops; a schedule will be announced in next month’s article.
Lewandowski is the Extension educator in Athens County.
This article published in the March, 2010 edition of OHIO FARMER.