5 Steps To Healthier Cattle Pastures

Boost the nutritional content of your grazing-pasture plants to boost cattle health and get better quality dairy and beef products in return.

by Dr. Lyle G. McNeal
PHOTO: iStock/Thinkstock

As the commercials say, “Great milk comes from happy cows”—but we might also add that the cattle’s health plays a major role in what ends up in you your milk glass, too. Whether you raise dairy or beef cattle, the food you provide for them—i.e., the nutritional quality of your pastures—will be a big factor in the quality of product they give you back.

When a pasture or hay field becomes less productive than desired, renovation can help improve or renew the land. The exact steps you take to achieve this will vary depending on the climate and soil where you live and farm, so the best thing you can do is work with your county extension agent, who can connect you with information about forage management that’s specific to your needs.

However, there are a few things every farmer can do to maximize the nutrition of their pasture plants. Follow these steps to help provide a quality pasture meal for your cattle.

1. Test your soil.

After receiving the results of your soil test, apply amendments, such as lime and fertilizer, if necessary. Legumes need a higher soil pH and fertility level than grasses; however, avoid using nitrogen-based fertilizers if you have 25 percent or more legumes. Added nitrogen stimulates grasses, which then compete with the legumes.

2. Reduce vegetative cover.

This is best achieved with heavy grazing in late fall and early winter. Removing excess grass cover will make it easier to help legume seed make contact with the soil.

3. Carefully select the legumes you use.

The legumes you choose to use in your pastures will depend on the soil and the planned use of the forage. In Kentucky, research has shown that alfalfa or red clover is usually best for hay. In addition to their high protein content, these crops grow very rapidly in summer in that area. For both hay and grazing, a combination of red clover and Ladino (white) clover works well. For pasture, Ladino clover, red clover and/or annual Lespedeza all work well there.

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Alfalfa and clover can cause bloat in cattle, though. While a grass mix with legumes can impact the pasture’s longevity, legumes should not be the sole source of roughage, unless the cattle are supplemented with bloat guard (poloxalene).

4. Use the right kind and amount of seed.

Select plant varieties that grow well in your area. Your local extension agent can point you to current research about appropriate varieties. The only way to be sure of what you’re planting is to use certified seed. Also be sure to mix the appropriate high-quality inoculants with the seed just before planting, along with a sticking agent to ensure the inoculants adhere to the seed. Most legume seed currently available is pre-inoculated. Check the seed tag or inoculum bag for the “plant by” date.

Plant the seed so it makes good contact with the soil. A simple, effective method is to broadcast the legume seed on the soil surface in late winter. As the soil freezes and thaws, the seeds become covered, though this method does not work well with alfalfa. Make sure the stand is grazed or cut closely so that most plant residue is removed and the seed hits the soil surface.

5. Control grass and weed competition.

After legumes start to grow, this step is one of the most critical. Many attempts to renovate pastures have failed simply because the grass was allowed to grow and reduce the light, nutrients and water available to the young legume plants. The grass must be kept short via grazing or mowing until the new legume plants are 3 to 4 inches tall. Stop grazing if the cattle bite off the young legume leaves. After reaching 3 to 4 inches in height, grazing and mowing should be stopped for several weeks to allow the legumes to become well established.

After legumes are well-established, the field should be mowed or grazed regularly to help maintain good condition. We highly recommend adopting a rotational grazing system to ensure optimal pasture management. In addition to a rotational grazing system, a “rest-rotational” system could extend the usefulness and productivity of the pasture. Depending on acreage involved, you might want to consider a mixed-species grazing system with cattle and meat goats or sheep. Holistic resource-management systems are outstanding forage harvesting systems with livestock, too.

Garry D. Lacefield, PhD is a Forage Specialist at the University of Kentucky Research Education Center, and Ray Smith, PhD, is a Forage Extension Specialist, Department of Plant and Soil Sciences in University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture.

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2013 issue of Hobby Farms.

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