Nurture Forage Pastures This Year

Keep your forages from becoming stressed with these tips.

by Dani Yokhna
Forage pasture
Courtesy iStockphoto/Thinkstock
Take steps to reduce stress on your forage crops this year so that they will thrive.

If the well-being of the 2011 forage crop reflects past years’, producers have a lot of work to do in the coming months.

Heavy rainfall followed by drought hurt the 2010 crop in many parts of the country and may have led producers to allow animals to overgraze pastures, says Keith Johnson, forage specialist at the Purdue University Cooperative Extension.

“The 2010 crop year was stressful to forages because the early spring rains didn’t allow producers to get the harvested hay crop out of the field as early as they would have liked, and the quality was less than desirable,” Johnson says. “Following that was a very long, dry period. As time went on, producers were stressing pasture crops they did have, and overgrazing occurred.”

Regardless of weather, forage growers need to take the time to identify the stresses on their crops season to season so they can eliminate some or all of those issues in the best interest of the existing plants.

For farmers unsure of the best process for taking fields or pastures from evaluation to overhaul, Johnson recommends following these steps for pasture renovation:

  1. Assess the need for pasture improvement.
  2. Test soil and apply amendments.
  3. Control perennial broadleaf weeds.
  4. Leave residual growth less than 4 inches tall.
  5. Make seed selections and purchase.
  6. Over-seed before dormancy breaks.
  7. Reduce competition to young seedlings by grazing growth of established forages or by hay harvest.

An important step for producers is to look at soil types and take soil samples, Johnson says. Soil samples should be dried and sent to a lab to be tested for pH, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, cation exchange capacity and organic matter. A basic test should cover all of these elements. Check with your county extension service to see if it offers soil testing.

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Any elements of the test, especially pH, that come back at moderate levels or less should be given some attention.

“Different crops have different pH levels at which they grow best,” Johnson says. “The forage crops we grow [in Indiana], particularly the cool-season grasses, really ought to be grown in a soil pH of 6.2 to 7. Most of the legumes we grow, such as alfalfa, really need a pH closer to 7.”

Having the proper soil pH level ensures nitrogen fixation and nutrient availability to the forage crop. An inadequate pH level could alter the forage composition, and producers could see less desirable forages growing in their fields.

Growers also need to evaluate the stands in their fields. They should determine if the pasture has more forages or weeds. If a pasture has been overgrazed and an abnormally large amount of soil is showing, over-seeding might be a corrective option.

Other stressors to watch for and control are weeds, insects and diseases.

“It’s the dynamics of growing crops that are important,” Johnson says. “Do a good job of scouting. Look at the well-being of the crop as it grows. Understand why the crop might not meet your objective as it grows. Be diagnostic about things, and take care of the issues in some fashion so the crop can be as productive as possible.”

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