Jamie Washburn

Jamie Washburn
Former Extension Educator, Local Food Systems and Small Farms


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Grazing for Forage

Grazing, forage and pasture managment info

Reseeding Pastures for Spring Grazing

It may not seem like it, but fall is right around the corner.  Now is the perfect time to consider what you can do maximize forage yields and quality and reduce weed control problems in your pastures this fall and next spring.

Pasture Management and Fertility
Healthy pastures need good fertility management to maximize forage production and animal health. Fall is a good time for an application of fertilizer to enhance fall and next spring's growth. This will also help pasture plants put on the needed leaf and root growth to help them to produce high quality fall feed, go into winter healthy and be ready for the spring. As a part of this, it is very important to know what your soil fertility needs are. It is critical to run a soil test every 2-3 years to make sure you are putting on what your plants need to maximize growth. You may need to adjust your soil pH with lime, especially where pastures are irrigated or if there has been higher precipitation than normal. There are a number soil testing laboratories that can test your soil very economically.

The fall is a good time to provide some additional nitrogen to help with fall green up. The fall and winter months in general are also a good time to apply Phosphorus, Potassium and Sulfur, which are nutrients that tie up tightly to soil particles (less hazard to cause ground water contamination) and take a longer time to become available to the plant as compared to Nitrogen. During the fall and winter months the rain and snow will help to move broadcasted nutrients into the soil so they will be available for next spring. Applications of lime for those with low pH problems is also suggested at this time of the year for the same reasons. Note, winter applications or Nitrogen are not recommended as Nitrogen is very mobile and does not tie up well to soil particles and can move easily into the groundwater and cause contamination. It should be stressed that if there is potential for surface water runoff such as with hillside or severely compacted pastures etc., broadcast applications of any nutrient have the potential for causing surface water contamination, so extreme care must be exercised as to when and how applications are made.

Pasture Seeding
The fall is also a good time to consider over-seeding your pastures to improve forage quality and reduce weed competition.  Your grazing needs, use of pasture, stocking density and overall soil health should be considered when choosing a forage variety.  When it comes to over-seeding in the fall, timing is everything. The later you seed the less likely the seedlings will be hardy enough to overwinter in an average year results.  It is very important to get the seedlings established before it gets too cold. It is generally not recommended to seed later than early October at the latest.

Pasture Use
It's a good idea not to graze pastures below three inches in height. Research and practical experience have shown that removing more than 50-percent of the grass or allowing grazing below three inches is very damaging to pastures and will reduce long-term plant health. Excessive grazing in the winter makes pasture plants more vulnerable to winter damage, disease and reduces spring re-growth.

Be aware of the damage livestock can do to pastures in the winter.  Livestock on winter pastures significantly contribute to soil compaction and plant damage. I have seen pastures destroyed by allowing livestock to stay out on the pastures during the winter when the soil is saturated. Animal hooves (especially horses) can destroy plants by cutting roots and crushing the plants, which reduce plant vigor and open up spaces for weeds to become established. Hoof pressure will also cause significant compaction, which will reduce root growth and water infiltration, which increases the potential for soil erosion and water contamination and takes years to repair. If possible, remove animals from pastures in the winter and house them in dry lots to allow pastures time to recover and establish a good stand of forage.

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