Healing the Mess: Early Season Pasture Management

Chris Penrose, OSU Extension Educator, Agriculture and Natural Resources, Morgan County (originally published in the Ohio Cattleman, Expo issue)

This exhibits what seemed to be the rule rather than the exception last winter. Photo: Landefeld

For those with pastured livestock, this past winter is one we would like to forget, but damage done is preventing that from occurring. Many farmers talked about the loss of livestock due to the wet weather and mud. To make matters worse, more hay had to be fed to deal with the additional stress on animals from the muddy conditions. The result was animals in a lower body condition and fields in a mess from livestock, feeding hay in the fields, and equipment trying to get hay to livestock.

Damage to fields was worse than most can remember. What can we do to fix the problem? We can start off with these two options: doing nothing or working the ground and re-seeding. Doing nothing may not seem to be the best option but if the area was not damaged too bad, it may heal itself. I noticed in late March some areas where I had bale rings, grass was starting to grow where the bale was located. Where the cattle stood, it was bare and not rutted too much. In a situation like that, you may be able to take a “wait and see” approach. Some grazers have fed in a concentrated area with the understanding that that part of the field will be out of production for the year and will be back in production the next year. In either one of these scenarios, monitor closely for undesirable weed growth and mow or treat as needed.

If the area needs to be re-seeded, you have options on how to repair the ground and what to plant. In an area that is not in too bad of shape, on a good year, one may be able to get out in March and level up the ground and possibly frost seed but it is too late for that this year. Once the ground is leveled, no-till is a good option. If you choose to work the ground, the better prepared the seed bed is, the greater the chances are of seed germination. The best option is to have a firm seed bed with good seed to soil contact. Any other lack of ground preparation reduces chances of germination. One option that I have seen work with some success is to level the ground with a loader or a blade and when you are about finished, back blade it and leave a little loose soil on the surface then broadcast the seed. The key to success with this option is to apply the seed immediately after back blading and before a rain or a dew where the soil will crust over. The addition of some mulch and fertilizer will help.

The next question is what to seed. Do you plant an annual or a perennial? Do you focus more on the needs of the animals or the needs of the ground? If you feed in the same location every year and want a rapid establishment, an annual grass may be an option.

I tend to lean more towards planting a perennial with the idea that maybe I will not have to re-seed every year. One perennial grass that works well is Kentucky 31 (endophyte infected) fescue. The endophyte in the fescue allows it to be a more durable grass that can withstand more damage than other grasses. However, the endophyte in the grass can cause health issues for livestock. The good news is there are newer “novel endophyte” fescue varieties that have the persistence of infected fescue but none of the health issues with livestock.

When choosing what to plant, I really subscribe to the recommendation that Dr. Mark Sulc (OSU Forage Specialist) uses: first, pick a primary grass, then a primary legume. If desired, pick a secondary grass then a secondary legume. There are also pasture mixes available at seed dealers and feed stores that may fit your needs as well.

If you had a chance to frost seed areas, especially clover, that were damaged during the winter and they are starting to grow, you may consider a light grazing of the pre-existing grass to allow for more sunlight and less competition for the new growth. You will lose some new seedings from the animal movements but if done right, the reduced competition will provide more growth of the new plants.

Another key to a successful stand is to wait to graze or mow. When to graze depends on stand vigor and weather conditions. Watch for weed competition. In spring planted fields, it is typically better to mow before you graze. If you graze first, make sure the ground is firm and keep animals in for no more than a week (less will be better). Keep in mind that grasses tend to establish slower than alfalfa.

Are there things we can do to reduce damage to fields in upcoming years? I think one of the least expensive and time saving things we can do is to have our animals graze as much as possible. Stockpiled fields of grass will reduce the amount of hay we need to make and to feed. If you only had to feed for three months, would that reduce the potential damage to your fields and reduce that amount of hay that needs to be made? How about if you could cut it down to 60 days? Would having some square bales of hay available to feed if the ground gets too wet to support a tractor? If you could place some round bales out in the field in the fall or when the ground is frozen in the winter and use electric fence to ration out the bales, would that reduce mud issues?

Finally, when all else fails, I am convinced that a heavy use pad is the way to go. I have seen several of these that are designed so a bale can be taken from the barn, to the feeding area on the pad, and never go into the field or on the pad. The livestock are out of the mud and damage is reduced. There is a cost involved and manure to haul, but in situations like we experienced this year, it may be money well spent.