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Production management of pastures

Jim Morrison Published on 22 February 2010

It’s not too late to make a New Year’s resolution to better utilize your pasture acreage to increase production and profit. Pasture management consists of managing animals, plants and soil, and their interrelationship.

It is farm-specific and involves a combination of art (or “eye of the beholder”) and science; however, it’s not simple so don’t look for shortcuts. The following list of management practices is a guide to help forage producers increase returns from pastures.

Set goals
Step back and ask yourself what is the objective or realistic expectation of my pasture? Consider soil characteristics (refer to your county soil survey book or the NRCS Web Soil Survey, your financial resources, and your management style and knowledge level. Consider writing these goals and referring to them periodically.

Take soil samples
This is the starting point to evaluate pasture fertility and to determine your fertilization strategy. Corn and soybean producers rely on current and accurate soil samples – why should pasture producers be any different? Consult with your local Extension office or University specialists for sampling guidelines (depth, frequency, time of year, etc.) and for a list of soil testing labs.

Use the soil test analysis
Make the analysis work for you. Begin by considering the soil pH, phosphorus, potassium and organic matter levels. When establishing a pasture and limestone is needed, apply it six months prior to seeding. This will allow sufficient time for limestone to correct the soil acidity. The optimum P1 (available phosphorus) level is 40 to 50 pounds per acre and the optimum K (potassium) level is 260 to 300 pounds per acre. Pasture fertility management is a continuous process.

Evaluate what you have
Identify the desirable grasses and legumes currently growing in your pasture. How thick or dense is the stand and how much leaf canopy is present?

Is the pasture being grazed uniformly, or is it being spot grazed, or overgrazed? Any soil erosion observed? By using a survey flag to probe the soil, can you detect soil compaction? A pasture condition score sheet, available from NRCS, can help you visually evaluate your pasture and answer the above questions.

Renovate, if needed
Pasture renovation generally implies adding one or more legumes to an existing grass-dominated stand with the purpose of increasing forage yield and quality plus supplying nitrogen for the grass. But prior to doing that, apply needed soil amendments (lime and fertilizer) based on a soil test and control perennial broadleaf weeds.

Plant high-quality seed of adapted legumes. Typically, legumes are added to grass stands by either frost seeding in late February or early March or by using a no-till drill (interseeding) in the early spring or mid- to late-August. Competition from the existing forage must be minimized so the new legume seedlings can get established.

Evaluate weed pressure
Weed management begins with correct identification. Control weeds before they become real problems. An integrated approach works well for managing pasture weeds. This includes maintaining adequate soil fertility, having a dense, vigorously growing sward, rotating pastures, mowing when necessary, and the proper use and application of herbicides, including following grazing restrictions.

Start rotational grazing
Moving livestock from one pasture to another or from one paddock to another based on forage growth and the animals’ feed requirements allows forages time to rest and regrow. Remember the guideline of “graze half, leave half,” referring to the percent of leaf removal. By rotating pastures, manure is more evenly distributed, and forage yield and utilization are increased. Livestock should not have to travel more than 800 feet to a source of water.

Bale surplus forage
Don’t let excess forage growth go to waste during the season. If livestock cannot keep up with the forage, consider harvesting a pasture or paddock as hay or baleage. Keep it for feed later, or sell it.

Extend the grazing season
There are many techniques and strategies to fill the gaps in pasture forage availability and thus reduce stored feed needs and increase profit. Some examples include stockpiling or deferred grazing, use of annual forages, and grazing crop residues. An excellent reference on this topic is the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative publication titled “Extending Grazing and Reducing Stored Feed Needs.” Local Extension and NRCS offices may have a copy, or it is available online at many websites, one being

Your actions are key!
Productive pastures just don’t happen – the key is you as the pasture manager. Walk your pastures and observe what’s happening during the grazing season. Remain flexible. Continue to learn and hone your forage management skills by visiting with fellow graziers, attending workshops and pasture walks, reading, and trying new practices.  FG

Jim Morrison
Jim Morrison
Extension Educator
University of Illinois