Bob Hendershot, Retired State Grassland Conservationist
Improving your pasture management skills will grow more forage that will have higher quality that will better feed your livestock and make you more money. A better pasture should just keep getting better year after year including; improving the environment; improving the soil, water, air, plants, and animals as well as reducing your energy requirements. Healthy soils can grow healthy plants that can allow animals to grow quicker, stronger and healthier, which will reduce the cost of production. We will discuss ways to improve the water quality in the runoff from your grazing system; improve the soil fertility in your pasture; that will improve the pasture plant composition; and will help improve the health of your pastures. Good managers know how to measure the things that they can change that will have a positive impact on their production system. You cannot manage things that you do not measure. How many things have you be monitoring, measuring in your pastures? They can include things like weekly growth rate, production, plant composition, carrying capacity, stocking rate, and soil fertility.
In addition, water quality has been a hot topic in Ohio Agriculture. The 4Rs of soil fertility and the effect on water quality should be familiar to all of us. The Right Source, Right Rate, Right Time, and Right Placement of fertilizer are not just a crop land issues. We should be looking at the same principles on our pasture and hay fields as well. It is also more than just fertilizer. Where is the manure from your grazing animals from this winter? We have control over the distribution of fertilizer and manure when we spread it with a fertilizer spreader or manure spreader. But when the animal is doing the spreading, do we control were those nutrients getting distributed by the grazing animal? We should and can if we are managing the grazing system. Farmers can effectively manage soil fertility by understanding the functions of the plants and the animals living in and on the soil. Good grazing management helps distribute the nutrients by locating the water, mineral, and shade in different places so to discourage nutrient concentration. The shorter the grazing duration, the better the manure distribution. Controlling the access of environmentally sensitive areas with managed grazing addresses the R’s of Right Time and Right Placement.
Fertile soils grow more grass and better livestock feed than soils with low or unbalanced soil fertility. Just because the grass is growing does not mean that it is providing high quality and balanced nutrition to the grazing animal. Grassland farming like crop farming without consideration of the soil is a fallacy. All plants interact with the soil. Do you have a current soil fertility test? Do you know your soil type from the soil survey?
Supplementing the soil fertility according to a current soil test with commercial fertilizer, compost or additional manure can increase both plant and animal production and is the Right Source. When forages are harvested and removed from the field to be fed in another location; nutrients are also relocated. One ton of dry forage contains the same amount of phosphorus as 35 bushels of shelled corn or 16 bushel of soybeans. Harvesting forages is an excellent way to lower very high levels of soil phosphorus from fields that are sensitive to runoff.
Applying the plant nutrients as close to when the plant needs them has the least amount of risk of loss to the environment. Forages largest need is in the late summer and early fall when they are growing new roots and storing energy for the winter and following spring green up. Spring applications are not as effective at growing root mass, but do encourage stem elongation and seed production. If the soil test levels are low, applying small amounts of nutrients several times during the growing season is a good way to increase forage production and animal performance; build a sustainable production system and is the Right Rate.
Calcium and phosphorus is typically the two nutrients that are limiting in Ohio pasture fields. Lime the primary source of calcium is necessary for raising the soil pH. It can also help prevent weeds, improves the absorption of other nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen, benefits soil microbiology life, helps legumes fix nitrogen, encourages deeper and more root development that helps drought proof a pasture and improves the palatability of the forage.