On the farm, winter is a time for planning. Whether you’re a vegetable gardener preparing your seed order, a crop producer getting your nutrient management plan in line, or a horse enthusiast checking out this season’s show schedule, planning is in full swing for everyone.
If you manage pastures, are you planning for improved pasture yields this year? Many producers focus on crop yields and animal performance, but pasture yield and performance sometimes get left out. Pastures aren’t only areas where animals can be turned out for exercise and fresh air. If managed properly, they can provide excellent nutrition for livestock and can significantly reduce feed costs.
The first step in improving pasture yield is to take a soil sample, in particular to examine pH. Maryland soils tend to be acidic, so unmanaged pastures are usually low in pH. Since many weeds thrive at low soil pH, an unmanaged pasture is also likely to be a weedy one. Correcting the pH with lime will help alleviate weed pressure and give your desirable forage species an advantage.
Another consideration is allowing pastures to rest and recover after they are grazed. How long will you allow animals to graze before you remove them from the pasture? How long will you allow pastures to rest before returning animals to them?
When a grazing animal removes leaf material, the plant’s ability to photosynthesize and produce food for growth is decreased. After being grazed, a pasture plant needs time to regenerate leaf area so that it can continue to photosynthesize and grow. If plants are grazed too short, or if plants are not allowed sufficient time to recover before being re-grazed, pastures become unthrifty. While the ground may be covered with vegetation, pastures that receive too much grazing pressure will not produce significant yield.
If you don’t usually allow pastures to rest, consider altering your grazing schedule this year. One way to do this is by implementing rotational grazing. Try dividing large pastures into several smaller pastures. This is relatively simple to do with step-in posts and electric tape. When pasture plants reach a height of three inches, move animals to another area. Ideally, by the time animals are returned to the first area, plants will have regrown to a height of at least six inches.
You can also utilize a sacrifice lot, or a small area of pasture where animals are contained when pasture plants are too short to graze. Pasture plants aren’t expected to yield highly in this area; it’s “sacrificed” for the good of the remaining pasture area. Put animals on the sacrifice lot when pasture plants reach three inches in height and return them to the pasture when plants reach six inches.
Of course, there is much more to keeping pastures producing at their best. But these two tips can go a long way to improving forage yield if included in your season plans.