Making the Most of This Unplanned Pasture Improvement Opportunity
John Jennings – Professor, Extension Forages
Forage problems resulting from the 2012 drought will extend into 2013. However, many of those problems could be disguised as unplanned pasture improvement opportunities. Not all farms have the perfect forage or livestock system in place. After assessing the drought’s damage to pastures and to livestock herds, producers should seriously think about possible changes and improvements. Does that field need to be reseeded and if so does it need to be the same forage species or variety? Could the grazing and hay systems be made better to avoid such disastrous effects in the next drought? All good questions, but the answers will be unique for each farm. Good assessment of actual damage and weed pressure will be critical. Soil tests for all pastures will be extremely helpful. The following options can help direct forage improvement efforts.
- Do nothing and let the surviving forages regrow
- Try to thicken the thin pastures with more of the same species
- Add legumes to thin fields
- Renovate damaged pastures and convert to other forage species or varieties
Option 1 -Do Nothing:
Success with this option will be dependent on severity of drought damage, the existing forage species, and willingness of the operator to nurse the field back to health. Tall fescue fields are resilient and often produce enough seed in summer to repopulate a drought-thinned stand. However, armyworms in spring ruined seed production in many fields. Prolonged grazing during drought reduced plant populations further. Careful field observation in early spring will reveal how much reseeding took place. Some thin fescue and bermudagrass fields will eventually fill in, but this make take a year or more. Clover died out in a majority of fields. White clover is a prolific reseeder and that seed should volunteer. Common bermudagrass produces seed and any surviving rhizomes will regrow next season. Any fields left “as-is” to regenerate on their own will need to be managed like new seedings. This means good management of fertility, weed control, and use of deferred grazing.
Option 2 – Try to thicken pastures with the same species
Adding seed to fill in a thin pasture can prove beneficial, but it should be managed like a new seeding. Fall rains have stimulated a lot of weed growth that can hinder seedling forage establishment. Guessing at a seeding rate based on percent damage is difficult. It is best to use a full seeding rate on damaged areas to make this option effective. Simply spreading a little seed over a weedy field hoping something good will happen has a high chance of failure. Spring oats can be planted as a nurse crop with fescue or orchardgrass although these grasses are best planted in fall. Do not plant annual ryegrass with fescue and orchardgrass seed. Ryegrass will crowd out most other forages and will produce seed that can continue to be a problem. Plant bermudagrass in late spring.
Option 3 – Adding legumes
Thin pastures provide a great opportunity to interseed legumes. Legumes improve forage quality and reduce N fertilizer need. Fall or late winter seeding is recommended for fescue pastures. Fall seeding is recommended for bermudagrass and other warm-season grass pastures. White and red clovers are popular perennial clovers and arrowleaf and crimson clovers are popular annual clovers. Controlling weeds this season and replanting clover in fall would be a good approach.
Option 4 – Renovate damaged pastures and convert to other forages
Converting damaged fields to different forage species can help extend the grazing season, improve forage quality, or reduce fescue toxicity. Make sure the new forage fits the operation because renovation is an expensive and time-consuming process. Pick a new forage based on seasonal forage need. For example, warm-season grasses should be considered in fescue-dominant systems. Cool-season grasses should be selected in bermudgrass or bahiagrass-dominant systems.
Diversity of seasonal forage species on the farm improves forage production throughout the year. Both cool-season and warm-season forages should be included. In north Arkansas the ratio of cool-season to warm-season forage should be about two-thirds cool-season and one third warm-season forage. In south Arkansas this ratio may be reversed due to a longer growing season. At the simplest level, a perennial cool-season grass like fescue and a perennial warm-season grass like bermudagrass should serve as the forage base. Adding more species makes the forage program more stable and dependable over time.
Individual pastures can be single forage species or simple mixtures. It is not necessary to have complex forage mixtures in each pasture. In fact, complex multi-seasonal forage mixtures within individual pastures are not desirable for all pastures because it complicates management during weather extremes. However, a robust combination of warm- and cool-season forage species in different pastures across the farm is desirable to improve forage availability during weather extremes. This separation simplifies management practices such as fertilization, weed management, and planning seasonal grazing or hay harvest. The transition of grazing cool-season forages to warm-season forages can also be accomplished more easily.