Pastures need a facelift?

By Phil Rucker, Jr. - For The Yadkin Ripple

With the lack of moisture and ill-timed cold snaps, pasture grasses have taken a beating the last couple of years. Livestock have tried to graze short underachieving forages leading to damaged and weakened stands. This allows the weed population to increase which weakens a stand of grass even more. The dry weather of 2016 and the continued lack of moisture has made many local pastures a prime candidate for serious renovations.

Forage stands vary in longevity, periods of drought, overgrazing, and weed infestation, which all take their toll on productivity. By properly renovating pastures, you can set the stage for success with your livestock operation. Proper planning, based on informed decisions, can positively influence your bottom line. Even if your pastures look like a war zone and your livestock don’t really have much grass to eat, spring is not the best time to plant cool season grasses (fescue, orchardgrass, etc.) for the best results. We usually have some hot dry weather in April and May which can damage seedling grass if the roots are not well established.

If you need to replace some damaged grass, look at summer annuals (millets, sudangrass, sorghums, etc.) to get you through until the timing is right to reseed many of our popular grasses. Many of our summer forages are planted mid to late April into May.

Animal species has a lot to do with forage selection. Horses can be very sensitive to certain warm season forages. While your livestock enjoy the benefits of warm season forages, you can take the time to plan the steps to properly renovate your pasture this fall. Successful forage plantings take planning and management from beginning to the end. If you are going to take the time and money to renovate your pastures, take the steps to do it correctly and not waste your money.

Make sure you apply fertilizer and weed control to your current forages to give remaining grass a chance to recover. Utilize proper grazing management to protect the forage you have. Consider summer annuals to add to your grazeable forage and cover some bare spots. These practices will help you evaluate your stand of grass and the need to renovate. The rest of this article is to help you make plans if you need to renovate your pastures in the fall. Take the time to plan, gather information and invest the proper time and money needed to have a successful renovation. Remember, this is not just grass, it’s food, nourishment, life support for your livestock. Better to do it right the first time than have to go back and go it again.

Fall is the best time to renovate your pastures. The first step to help insure a successful renovation is to take soil samples to determine what pastures require for optimum fertility. Soil test reports offer an accurate analysis of the nutrients present in the soil as well as a pH analysis, allowing for effective management plans to be designed. By knowing what your pastures require, you can get the most out of your fertilizer dollars, which is vital to profitability. Using proper fertilizer rates and adjusting soil pH levels allow producers to set the stage for long-term forage productivity.

Cool season pastures can suffer varying degrees of stand loss, and fall is an ideal time to reseed fescue and/or orchardgrass. If pastures are in real bad shape, maybe look at using one of the novel endophyte fescue varieties. You get the same growth and heartiness as K-31 but without the harmful endophyte (fungus). Costs more to plant but could pay dividends down the road.

Make a strong effort to try and fill in the bare spots, and feeding areas to prevent weed invasions. By preventing avenues of opportunity, you can lessen weed problems, as we know weeds will fill in bare spots if you do not reseed. The job of reseeding can be done most effectively with a no-till drill as this ensures good seed to soil contact. Remember that the Soil & Water Conservation Service has no-till drills for rent. During periods of abundant moisture, regular grain drills are also capable of effectively drilling grass seeds into sod. Another method is to set your disc harrow straight and lightly disc the pasture, then broadcast the seed, and cultipack to ensure good seed to soil contact. Seeding rates will vary due to things like existing sod (thick, weak, bare soil), number of forage species planted, companion crops planted, drilled or broadcast as well as other considerations.

Contact the Extension Center for information on seeding rates.

To sum it up:

(1) Remove excess pasture growth prior to renovation. Mow or graze to a 1-inch stubble in fall.

(2) Soil test, then lime and fertilize accordingly. Legumes require a higher soil pH and fertility level than grasses. Fertilize by soil test to achieve adequate potassium and phosphate levels, but do not apply nitrogen.

(3) Select the proper legumes and cool season grasses.

(4) Usually the best time to plant grass seed is between August 25th and September 15th. Clovers can also be frost seeded up to late winter. Seeding success is dependent upon soil moisture for germination, establishment, and good seed-to-soil contact. If grass sod is thick, it may be necessary to use a disk to bring soil to the surface.

When renovating pastures, make it a point to give them the added rest time to recover, allowing young seedlings to become established before grazing them. Give them time to grow, or you will probably have wasted your time and money. By planning now and using a few agronomic principles, livestock producers can reduce input costs, and retain as wide a profit margin as possible. Weather challenges and price inflation are inevitable, but through proper planning and management, beef producers will be able to maximize their forage production and reduce their overall costs of production. Producers who renovate pastures and hayfields in the fall are usually more successful than those who renovate in the spring, because fall seeded forages benefit from better root development when hot dry weather comes. Those who manage new forage stands properly, will help increase their forage quality, yield and persistence, and minimize weed invasion that occurs in thin forage stands.

Contact your Extension Center Davie (336-753-6100) or Yadkin (336-849-7908) for more information on varieties, seeding rates and additional information on renovating your pastures. Remember that grazing forages is the most efficient method feed your livestock and to your livestock are healthier and productive when they have adequate quantities of good quality forage.

Phil Rucker Jr. is an extension agent for Davie and Yadkin counties.

By Phil Rucker, Jr.

For The Yadkin Ripple