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3 ways to set your pasture up for failure

Cassidy Woolsey Published on 13 August 2015
cattle in pasture

Humans are creatures of habit. We grow up believing and doing one thing without really giving it much thought. Take putting on pants for example: Do you put your right leg in first or your left? In many cases, it is the same with pasture management; it becomes a regular routine, and unfortunately, some practices shouldn’t.

So to help you reach your pasture goals this next year, Steve Fransen, a forage specialist at the University of Washington, has outlined three practices that should end today.

1. Applying nitrogen in the fall

Did you know fall is one of the most critical points in a plant’s life cycle? Any management decisions made at this time can alter a perennial plant’s ability to overwinter; it can affect when the plant’s regrowth will begin in the spring; and it can limit the plant’s productivity for the next growing season, Fransen says. It is important that you understand when to apply nitrogen and why, to avoid permanently damaging your pasture.

Fransen points out that grass pastures respond extremely well to nitrogen applications. Research has shown that grass production increases by about 35 to 80 pounds of dry matter per acre for every 1 pound of nitrogen applied. But it is important to note that as the amount of nitrogen applied increases, the amount of stored carbohydrates (sugars) decreases.

Fransen explains that those sugars are critical when it comes to a plant’s ability to survive the winter. Fall is the time when root regeneration occurs and shoots or growing points are established for the next growing season. In the early stages, these shoots are fragile and need a steady supply of nutrients and protection from stress. So whatever you do in the fall has a direct effect on the long-term productivity of the plants.

Fransen gives an example of a dairy farmer who emptied his lagoons in the fall, releasing high amounts of nitrogen into his pastures. As planned, the grass began to grow at a rapid rate. But as the amount of protein increased, the amount of sugars decreased, setting the plants up for a dangerous situation.

“That’s when you set yourself up for winter kill,” Fransen says. “Everyone seems to think that you can go into the winter with a minimalistic amount of sugar and the plants will survive – they won’t! You want to be careful about applying certain nutrients in the fall because it is such a critical time.”

2. Fertilizing without soil testing

Soil tests need to be taken before fertilizer is applied. The test should be taken annually if pastures have a history of nutrient deficiencies or every three or four years if soil fertility is within recommended levels. Because soil fertility fluctuates each season, it is important the sample is taken around the same date each year for the most accurate reading.

“If you need to fertilize, you have got to soil test before you fertilize. They go hand in hand,” Fransen says. “Your management decisions are going to impose how the plants are going to grow, how they are going to survive and how they are going to be there for the next year. It seems like such an obvious thing, but so many growers forget this critical step and end up wasting their time and their money.”

It is also important to be aware that fertilizer recommendations given by the laboratory may be higher than necessary because they may not take into account the recycling of nutrients by grazing animals, he says. Take into account your observations of forage productivity and nutrient cycling to help determine which nutrients are needed.

3. Grazing or cutting the plant below 3 to 4 inches

Like people, cattle know exactly what foods they would rather eat on their pasture plate. The closer the animal gets to the crown of the plant, the better it tastes. This tasty area is the sugar storage unit, and to keep that available for the plant, Fransen recommends that grasses are never cut or grazed below the 4-inch line.

“As you cut or graze too low, you take away too much sugar, and then the plant has to regenerate itself from sugars deeper and deeper, and as that happens, the plant continues to shrink, the buds get smaller and basically everything goes south on you,” Fransen says.

If pastures are grazed or cut lower than the recommendations in the fall, these reserves are reduced, starving the new tillers and exposing the plant to detrimental weather conditions. Fransen says the root formation will slow down or even stop, resulting in slower growth and fewer roots for the plants next spring.

Many hay growers with cattle tend to move their animals onto the hay field after the last cutting has been removed. However, Fransen points out that this long-held practice can do more damage than you may realize. As stated earlier, the sugars are the tastiest part of the plant and are vulnerable at this point in production. Without adequate storage of sugar prior to winter, those plants will have a distinct disadvantage in the spring. If you must graze hay fields in the fall, he encourages you to give the field adequate time for regrowth to occur before grazing the cattle.

“There isn’t a rule that says you can’t feed hay in the summer or fall months,” Fransen says. “If the stubble heights are getting lower than the 4-inch line, it is better you feed a few bales than to permanently ruin your pasture.”

As you can see, fall is more than just the end of the harvest season; it is also the beginning of a new growing season. Don’t repeat bad practices year after year. Take this fall as a start to a new and improved pasture management system – after all, what you do in the fall will determine your pasture’s success for years to come.  FG

PHOTO: For long-term survival of pastures and hayfields, Fransen encourages growers to keep stubble heights at or above the 4-inch level. Photo by Cassidy Woolsey.

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