It has been a dry fall and winter for a large portion of eastern Oklahoma this year. Forages such as fescue and ryegrass have not fared well, and the coming spring may end up being one of those where we are forced to feed large quantities of hay and supplement into April. If you do have a decent stand of fescue or ryegrass, you may want to consider fertilizing it this spring to reduce the cost of feeding in March and April.

Many of the pastures planted to ryegrass or traditionally have ryegrass stands may appear to have low plant populations. If you really get out there and look closely, some of them have three or four plants per square foot. These plants are extremely small and are hanging on by a thread, but they are still green. With better weather and a little fertility, it may still be possible to make a decent forage crop of ryegrass in early March and April. You just need to get out there and take a close look now in order to develop a game plan.

Ryegrass, when given the right fertility and some rainfall, has the ability to produce many tillers that increase stand density and forage yields. A tiller is just a stem that grows from the crown of the plant and produces leaves, stems and seed heads. A ryegrass plant that has five to six of these tillers can produce a lot of forage! To determine if it is worth the expense to apply fertility to the pasture, an easy method of determining plant populations is to use a wire coat hanger and actually go out and count ryegrass plants. The inside of a wire coat hanger is about 0.5 square feet. If we throw the coat hanger on the ground and there are four small ryegrass plants inside the wire, we would have about eight plants per square foot. When using this method to make counts, it is important you take counts across the whole pasture. Drive a pickup or ATV across the pasture and throw the coat hanger down in at least 20 places. Count the visible plants in each sample and multiply by two, recording 20 separate measurements. Add them together and divide by 20 and this will give the average plants per square foot for the pasture. If it’s five or six plants per square foot, adding nitrogen fertility may be worth the expense in reduce feeding costs. If it’s one to three plants per square foot, you may want to save those fertilizer dollars for use later in the spring for Bermudagrass production.

The most difficult aspect of this method could be proper identification, especially on late or weak stands. Ryegrass can look a whole lot like other winter grasses that do not respond as aggressively to fertility. It is pretty easy to tell them apart if you look closely. Most of our annual bromes (winter grasses) will have hairs somewhere on the plant. It may be on the leaf blades, or it may be where the leaf meets the stem or it could be on the collar around the stem. If the plant has any hairs on it anywhere, it is not ryegrass. Ryegrass will have a shiny appearance when in bright sunshine and there will be no hairs on the plant. This makes it easy to identify if you look closely.

A similar process can be used to determine if fertilizing fescue will pay off. Fescue being a perennial plant, it will have large crowns which can cover quite a bit of area. Instead of counting plants when we throw our coat hanger down, we will estimate ground cover. If the green fescue plant covers 25 percent of the area inside the coat hanger, we would write this down. After taking 20 observations across the field, we would add up all the numbers and divide by 20. This would give us the average percent ground cover of fescue for the pasture. If this number is above 25 percent, you should consider applying a fertility treatment. If the average is less than 25 percent, you may want to save those fertilizer dollars for later in the year. In the spring of 2016, an OSU cooperator herd was able to fertilize one acre per cow of fescue on Feb. 14, and with good weather, by March 5 had ceased all hay and supplementation for the remainder of the spring. This equated to a 40-day reduction in feeding, which saved the producer just over $40 per cow! Not to mention the additional fescue production eliminated the need to immediately begin grazing Bermudagrass fields in late spring, allowing these fields to get a “jumpstart” on the cowherd. Since urea is currently cheaper than it was last year, what do you think this producer will do in 2017? Making the cow do her own work can not only save money but labor as well.

Nitrogen fertilizer prices still remain reasonable when compared to hay/ supplement costs and applying 130 pounds per acre of urea in February could easily result in a ton of forage production this spring. If you have the ryegrass plant populations needed or the fescue ground cover needed, consider fertilizing them to reduce your spring feeding costs. £

(Source: Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service - Northeast District’s Timely Topics)