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How to Grow Cool-season Pastures

Put the chill on your winter feed expenses by planting cool-season forages for your livestock.

By John Howle

Ammonium nitrate fertilizer bag
Courtesy Stephanie Staton
The numbers on a bag of fertilizer indicate the ratio of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium per 100 pounds of fertilizer.

Fertilize the Pastures
As with any planted forage, fertilizer is a major component of success. With the proper amount of rainfall (i.e., average for your area), the nitrogen—whether in commercial or organic form—will help the grass grow fast and green. A soil test is the only way to accurately determine how much fertilizer to apply. Once the soil report comes back, the soil analysis will show your soil’s pH, so you can determine if the pasture needs lime and fertilizer and in what amounts.

On a typical bag of commercial fertilizer, you’ll see three numbers indicating the percentage of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. For instance, ammonium nitrate will have the numbers 34-0-0 on the bag, which means there are 34 pounds of nitrogen for every 100 pounds of fertilizer. A bag of 13-13-13 has 13 percent each of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium.

For Wright’s winter pastures, consisting mostly of Marshall ryegrass, he applies cow manure from his dairy barn at a rate of approximately 60 pounds per acre. In August, he lightly disks his fields, then broadcasts ryegrass seeds in mid-September. As the seeds are broadcast, he uses a cultipacker, an implement that packs the seed into the soil on a prepared seedbed as it’s pulled behind a tractor. The cultipacker also helps firm the soil and prevent erosion in the event of large amounts of rainfall.

If you plan to use an organic fertilizer, such as cattle, poultry or rabbit manure, it’s important to get an analysis of its content to know just how much fertilizer you’re actually getting. Most land-grant universities will analyze manure for its nutrient levels. Although typically lower in nutrient quality than commercial fertilizer, due to its high organic content, organic fertilizer builds the soil while commercial fertilizer does not.

“Fertilizer will be the biggest expense in creating plentiful winter forage for livestock,” Bates says. “However, it’s cheaper to grow the forage than it is to produce the hay and feed it.”

Cutting, raking and baling hay is a big expense, not to mention the issue of storage. Although you may not be able to entirely eliminate feeding hay, the amount fed can be greatly reduced when the forage is growing live.

Implement Rotational Grazing
Wright rotationally grazes 5-acre paddocks. He says the only feed he supplements with the ryegrass pasture is grain with added minerals.

“The grain I use has magnesium and calcium,” he explains. “The magnesium guards against grass tetany, and the calcium prevents milk fever.”

According to Wright, his rotational grazing is keeping nutrients on the farm.

“When you cut hay, you are removing nutrients from the field in the hay,” he says. “When the cows graze the grass, they are getting the nutrients they need as well as returning many of those nutrients back to the soil in their droppings.”

It’s important not to graze the forage to less than 2 inches when using rotational grazing. If livestock are allowed to graze too long, weeds will be given a greater opportunity to sprout, the forage will become excessively trampled, and the plants’ root systems and overall quality will be stressed.

Spring into Action
Bates recommends evaluating the forage quality in spring to determine the forage needed in the winter.

“When the forage is about 8 inches tall, walk over the stand to estimate what percent of the ground is covered with leaves, and if there is 70 percent or better coverage, just add clover,” he says. “If there’s 40 to 70 percent, you can drill more tall fescue in the fall once it has been grazed low and the ground moisture is higher.”

If the stand is less than 40 percent, Bates recommends killing it and replanting.

The onset of cold weather doesn’t mean you have to stop grazing livestock and put them on hay. There are plenty of cool-season forage options for extending your grazing season well into the cold months of the year. Your livestock and your wallet will reap the benefits.

About the Author: John Howle is a freelance writer, hobby farmer, English teacher, and singer/songwriter from Heflin, Ala. He and his wife and three children share the rich farming heritage handed down to them by their ancestors.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2011 issue of Hobby Farms.

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How to Grow Cool-season Pastures

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Interesting! I hope that everyone has a great and safe weekend!
Mike, Columbia, TN
Posted: 9/21/2012 12:27:47 PM
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