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Bringing overgrazed pasture back from the dead: Be patient, have a plan

Contributed by Ryan McGeeney Published on 11 July 2019

New landowners sometimes face a daunting challenge: how to make the most of newly acquired pastureland that has been overgrazed for years. The soil may lay bare, incapable of the forage production necessary to support a substantial number of animals.

Dirk Philipp, associate professor of animal science for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, said it’s not an uncommon predicament.

“Many times, retirees and young families want to get into small-scale farming and buy land ‘out in the country’ – perhaps 10 acres of pasture or 40 acres of mixed pasture and woods,” Philipp said.

“There is a lot of value in owners with no previous experience tackling agriculture,” he said. “It contributes to the valuation of food production, rural aesthetics and keeping small farms in existence.”

Philipp offered six key steps to bringing dilapidated pastures back to their full production glory:

Establish your objective

Be clear about what you want and why. Do you need pastures for horses, or do you want to start a small cattle operation with a few mother cows? Where do you see your farm in 10 years? Do you want the farm to generate income?

Be realistic about your time frame

“Pastures don’t become productive overnight,” Philipp said. “They’re a dynamic entity that changes over the years. They have to be constantly managed.”

Renovating – or newly planting – pastures takes a minimum of 12 months until they’re ready to be put into full use, if done right, during which time the land can’t be used for grazing livestock.

Soil management is key

“Most of the time, pastureland was not the original ecosystem, so the soil type is actually not naturally suited for pastureland,” Philipp said. Landowners should get a soil testing profile, including the pH balance.

“The application of lime may be necessary for the first few years,” he said.

Establish a forage plan

Landowners need to be clear about what animals they want to support with their new pastures, and then choose a forage that takes into account climatic and topographic factors, as well.

Make a budget

Knowing what you’ll need to spend is as important a step as any other, Philipp said.

“Find out about the various costs involved with pasture reestablishment,” he said. “Seeding costs can be substantial for forages such as novel endophyte tall fescue or native warm-season grasses.”

Landowners should also consider costs for water access and fencing.

Take advantage of available resources

Reach out to the Cooperative Extension Service office in your county – they are a wealth of knowledge about what typically works (and what usually doesn’t) in your area. Contact cost-share agencies as well, such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service or the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, and see what programs are available to assist you.

Fast facts:

  • Reseeding is often not enough: Restoring a pasture’s nutrient and pH balance can take a year or more.
  • Whether it’s 10 acres or 40, landowners should first know what animals they want to support with their pasture.

To learn about pasture management in Arkansas, contact your local Cooperative Extension Service agent or visit the University of Arkansas Extension website.  end mark

Ryan McGeeney is an agricultural writer for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. Email Ryan McGeeney.

—Excerpts from University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, May 2019