Dr. Jessica Williamson, Extension Forage Specialist, Penn State University
(Previously published on the Penn State Extension webpage: March 17, 2015)
As the blanket of snow that covered the majority of the state throughout the winter continues to melt away, seedlings of perennial forages will begin to emerge from the ground, reflecting a hint of green across pastures as a reminder that spring is on the way. When planning to get your pastures ready for spring, the earlier the planning begins the better.
Applying fertilizer according to your fall soil sample will ensure optimum pH and soil fertility according to your targeted forage species. Ensuring proper soil fertility provides your desirable plants a competitive advantage over undesirable species which may reduce your pasture’s value by reducing carrying capacity, lowering the quality of available forages, and reducing the aesthetic appeal of your operation. Maintaining the proper pH increases the availability of other nutrients to forages by releasing them from the soil, as well as increases the activity of beneficial soil bacteria.
If a pasture is in need of a production boost, applying 30-40 lb. of nitrogen per acre can help not only increase forage yield, but also improve pasture carrying capacity, increase plant nutrient reserves, help to build a denser root system, and could result in improved forage quality. An application of N will give the desirable plants the added benefits they need to out-compete undesirable weeds, leading to greater forage yield. However, if forage quality and yield are not a factor in the spring, consider waiting to apply N to pastures when it is needed; when plant growth slows and forage resources are more limited.
One benefit of grazing livestock is that 80% of the nutrients that animals consume are returned to the soil. Dragging pastures that have wintered livestock allows the manure to be better distributed and prevents forage from being smothered by manure piles. Dragging is recommended as soon as manure piles are no longer frozen to disperse forage seeds within the manure and provide them the proper seed-to-soil contact needed to germinate. This is particularly important in grass-legume mixtures, as legume seeds benefit from the frost-thaw cycles in early spring. Fields where livestock were fed heaviest during the winter should be dragged first, where the greatest accumulation of manure occurred.
Later in the grazing season, the control of parasites is also increased by breaking-up manure piles and disrupting their life cycle. External parasites, such as flies, prefer fresh manure piles for laying their eggs. Dragging pastures breaks up these piles, in turn exposing the moist manure to sunlight and allowing it to dry, killing the larvae and potentially reducing the overall external parasite load on the operation.
After evaluating past managed grazing systems and determining what did and did not work on your operation, early spring can be the best time to plan how to improve your grazing system in the upcoming grazing season. Walking fence lines and repairing where necessary is a task that can alleviate a lot of headache later in the season. Splitting a large pasture in half to improve grazing efficiency and eliminate selective grazing, improving watering systems to allow for easier and more environmentally-friendly watering of livestock, or adding another strand of barbed wire to a perimeter fence to keep those calves from going over into the neighbor’s yard are just a few examples of what may be lingering on your to-do list in the upcoming weeks.
Now is the time to capitalize on warm, early spring days by preparing for the upcoming growing season!