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As we wait for the last of the snow to disappear, it is a good time to start planning for spring pasture management. Local pastures may need a little TLC this spring coming off of the dry fall conditions of 2013. In many cases, short forage supplies necessitated grazing pastures closer than is normally desired. In some cases pastures weeds stayed green past the time pasture grasses went dormant, which may lead to increased weed production in 2014.
Here are a few general points to plan and evaluate your pastures this spring.
• Plan for pasture and general forage needs. How much forage will you need to produce in the coming year? Will new seeding or inter-seeding of existing pastures be necessary to improve pasture yields and total forage tonnage? Put a budget together for seed and planting costs.
• Assess pasture condition. Some pastures may have thinner stands due to the stresses of the extreme weather we’ve had the last couple years. Look at the species that are currently in your pastures. In general, greater diversity of pasture species improves yields and tolerance to weather extremes.
• Consider adding legumes. While we’re on the topic of diversity and pasture species, having legumes in your pasture mix can provide a significant portion of the Nitrogen needed for pasture grasses to thrive. Most pastures will benefit from 30-40% legumes in the sward. Most legumes need to be re-seeded every few years, with clovers being the most common. Clovers are also a good choice if frost seeding.
• Address soil fertility. Just like row crop fields, pastures should be soil tested every 3 to 4 years. Fertility recommendations will vary depending on how much, if any, legumes are present or will be seeded. While manure from grazing livestock can provide many of the nutrients needed for pastures, be cautious of how evenly manure is distributed across the pasture. Locations of watering areas, cattle lanes, shade, and supplemental feeding can cause un-even distribution of manure.
• Control pasture weeds. Increased bare ground in pastures grazed hard in 2013 may lead to increased weed production this season. Scout pastures early to determine where weeds may be an issue and develop a plan to address them.
• Identify ways to improve your pasture management practices. Pastures require periodic rests between grazing’s for optimal yields and vigor. Additionally, pay attention to beginning and ending grazing stubble heights. Leaving 3-4 inches of stubble throughout the grazing season can increase yields with the added benefit of reducing weed competition. Subdividing large pastures is the best way to provide the periodic rest pastures need.
• Consider using annual forages for grazing. Small grains, brassicas, sorghum, sudan grass and hybrids, corn residue, and more are all gaining in popularity once again. These options can fill in gaps in pasture production. Many provide the flexibility to harvest as forage or graze, depending on pasture conditions and need at the time.
A more comprehensive guide to spring pasture planning has been compiled by UW-Extension grazing specialist Rhonda Gildersleeve titled “2013 Pasture Management Tips: After the Drought.” This guide can be found online at fyi.uwex.edu/grazres.