Spring management on grazing lands is critical for optimum forage production and nutrition year-round. After a wet and muddy winter that left pastures with problem areas and with low cattle prices pushing producers to retain marketable animals, careful grass management will be more important in 2020 than ever before.
“Grass is our commodity,” said Dale Helwig, a Kansas State University Extension agent in Cherokee County. “We raise cattle but we actually manage and produce grass.”
The foundation of pasture management practices rests firmly on four pillars — fertility, weed control, utilization and generation.
One of the first management areas producers will tackle this spring is fertilizer application. Identifying quantity and quality goals as well as the forage’s end destination prior to fertilizer application can help producers tailor their approach to each individual field.
“When we talk about fertility the first questions you ask yourself need to help you identify your forage’s purpose,” Helwig said. “If you’re haying your forage, you’re probably going to throw as much fertilizer on it as possible to get as much quantity as you can and the nice thing about fertility is that if we harvest in a timely fashion it can also increase the crude protein value of the hay.”
Producers with estimates of their yearly hay usage can also use strategic nitrogen application to meet volume targets, whether baling fescue or bermudagrass hay.
“If we’re talking about fescue and extra 50 units of nitrogen will give you about an extra ton of forage,” Helwig said. “Bermudagrass is a much more efficient user of nitrogen, so it only takes about 40 pounds of nitrogen to produce a ton of forage.”
Helwig said bermudagrass may be a better option for baling than fescue because of it’s need for less nitrogen and the more cooperative weather around its peak maturity, where fescue haying can often be difficult if wet weather persists.
“We should be baling fescue from the middle part of April throughout May to maximize the balance between quantity and quality production,” Helwig said. “If we go past that, we lose some of the nitrogen and protein.”
For fertilizer applications on grazing pasture, Helwig said producers need to identify their stocking rate and plans for pasture usage in order to devise a strategic plan.
“Typically we would like to add a little bit of fertility even if the stocking rate is low, just to add to the protein value of the forage,” Helwig said. “If we have a high rate, we’ll need a higher amount of fertilizer out there to also increase forage production.”
How long the pastures will be grazed and whether they are included in a rotation or are to be used for stockpiling are also areas to identify. Helwig said pastures rotated frequently might have less of a need for fertilizer than pastures used for stockpiling forages.
Added fertility can have some additional weed control benefits on its own, especially in the case of controlling broomsedge.
“Broomsedge does not have just one problem that causes it; it could be a pH problem in the soil, could be a low phosphorus, or it could be a low potassium,” Helwig said. “There’s no quick fix to broomsedge.”
Broomsedge thrives in fields with low fertility. Helwig said soil testing, nutrient management and contributing to soil fertility are all methods for discouraging broomsedge, but producers looking to eradicate the weed completely could be setting up for a seven year battle at a minimum.
Weed control is a particularly important partner to increasing field fertility, but managing a wide variety of plants and products can often be confusing.
“Every different kind of weed takes a different kind of spray,” Helwig said. “You’ve got to know what desirable forages you want to keep; for example if you’re using metsulfuron products and you have fescue then you might damage the fescue, in those cases it would be good to look for other options.”
Currently, Helwig said, many weeds are still establishing themselves for the coming year. When the plants are still in a small, tender stage is an opportune time to work on eradication.
“If you can see weeds out in your pasture and they’re still small, then now is the time to be spraying,” Helwig said. “Weeds are much easier to kill when they’re small than after they get more mature and taller.”
The paradox to adding fertilizer to pastures is most weeds thrive given the extra nutrition, but grasses don’t perform well in low fertility soils.
“When we add fertilizer to low fertility soil with no weed control, then we have a lot more weeds,” Helwig said. “We’ve got to have an integrated approach.”
The pillar of forage management with perhaps the most financial implications for producers is also the one with the least direct costs attached. While careful forage management takes increased time and effort, it can also directly increase available forage and decrease the need for alternative nutritional supplementation.
“About 95% of the pastures out there are utilizing continuous grazing,” Helwig said. “Time after time studies have shown that the forage utilization we have through continuous grazing is around 30%.”
Trampling and defecating in concentrated areas can cost producers a lot of forage over time, as well as shorten the productive life of the soil and grasses in pastures. Studies have show fields used as part of a rotational grazing protocol are more efficiently utilized than continuously grazed fields, with a better distribution of nutrients returned to the soil through defecation.
“When we move to a rotational or strip grazing situation, we can increase utilization up to 50 to 70%,” Helwig said. “Depending on how much intensive management we want to do.”
Helwig said continuous grazing, especially without additional fertility or weed control, can quickly endanger populations of high quality, beneficial grasses in the pasture.
“In a continuous grazing situation the cows are going to go through and eat all of the desirable forages first,” Helwig said. “After they make their round and they’ve eaten what they wanted, they go back to the beginning where the grass has regrown an inch or so and they nub it off at the ground.”
Cattle won’t naturally choose to let the grass rest and recover and the end result is bare ground susceptible to weeds. Establishing a method to prevent cattle from overgrazing any one pasture or species within a pasture can help increase the usability of land as a whole.
“The rule of thumb when you are rotating pastures is to take half and leave half,” Helwig said. “The reason why we do that is to allow the grasses to recover and grow.”
Leaf area needs to be left behind on grazed plants in order to allow them to quickly regenerate. Plants without leaf area left must pull from their root stores to recover because they cannot complete photosynthesis and the result is a weakened plant. Rotation also helps with worm control because vacating the pasture gives time for parasite load to dissipate and taller grass makes it more difficult for the cattle to contract the worms, Helwig said.
Generation is a term not often used alongside forage production but growing more grass is an important aspect of cattle production. One part of monitoring forage generation is measuring existing forage. As a general rule of thumb, Helwig said every inch of fescue above the ground is equal to about 330 pounds of dry matter per acre, for bermudagrass it would be 400 pounds per inch per acre.
As for when to measure forage growth and push for additional production, he said the time is now.
“We get 22% of our growth for fescue in the month of April, the second most would be 19% in May,” Helwig said. “We’re coming up on that right now, but come June and July, we’ll get no growth from Fescue until August.”
Bermudagrass experiences its peak growth in June, making it an excellent forage to pair with fescue for continued quality grazing. The production ccycles of the two grasses compliment each other in several windows during the grazing season, including in the fall.
“If we can graze bermudagrass in September and not graze the fescue, we can stockpile that forage,”Helwig said. “We did some research last year where we fertilized in September and then didn’t utilize the forage until December and we still had 13 to 14% crude protein.”
The increased protein allowed cow requirements to be met without supplementation well into the spring, a factor that would greatly decrease feed costs on most farms. Helwig said making small changes in forage production and management can have big impacts on long-term pasture health and financial input.
For the full webinar containing this information and more, visit https://www.cherokee.k-state.edu/crops-livestock/pasture%20management.mp4.