To fertilize or not? Penny-pinching may lead to trouble

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Spring is just around the corner and the time to get serious about pasture and hayland planting or reseeding is here.

With memories of last summer’s drought and the consequences that resulted from less available forage than normal fresh on our minds, the time to take action to increase this year’s forage production is now.

Even with fertilizer costs and seed prices up significantly from previous years, producing and using good quality pastures is still our cheapest feed for grazing livestock.

I have heard many farmers discussing whether or not they can afford to fertilize their pasture or hay fields due to the rising cost of lime and fertilizer.

My question is, “Can you afford not to?”

Costs

Consider the cost of lime and fertilizer required to meet the production potential compared to the value of increased production of 1 ton to 2-plus tons of forage per acre. The land cost and machinery cost are basically the same whether harvesting 1 ton per acre or 5 tons per acre.

Based on a recent spreadsheet that looked at the cost of the land, plus the equipment and nutrients involved in hay production, it costs a farmer in east central Ohio about $34.75 per bale to produce two bales per acre that weigh 1,500 pounds.

By adding lime and fertilizer to bring the production up to five bales the same size, the cost drops to $13.90 per bale.

“I have heard many farmers discussing whether or not they can afford to fertilize their pasture or hay fields due to the rising cost of lime and fertilizer.
My question is, ‘Can you afford not to?’”

Looking at it another way, based on current prices, for every 20 cents of lime and fertilizer applied to increase production, 60 cents of forage can be produced.

Can you really afford not to apply the nutrients needed to increase your production? A dollar saved by not fertilizing may be costing you $3 in lost feed value.

The other side of this equation is having the forage stand that will allow you to get the production from the soil and fertility that is present.

Reseeding

If the weather last summer, or the management, or the stress from use this winter has your fields looking bare, then maybe reseeding is needed. There is still time to make a dormant or frost seeding, but that time frame is growing short. We normally recommend that a dormant seeding be completed by March 14.

If you have decided that you need to make a seeding this spring, hopefully you have already taken a soil test or are going to get that done this week.

Lime should be applied as soon as possible (although it should have ideally been done last fall) to adjust the pH to the desired level depending on the type of forages to be grown.

Typically, the pH should be at least 6.2 for most grasses with a minimum of 6.5 if you are considering alfalfa. If you have not taken a soil test to confirm the soil fertility and pH, I would recommend you not plant alfalfa this spring because alfalfa is not tolerant of the lower pH levels.

Use

In selecting what is to be seeded, consider how the field will be used. Will it be rotationally grazed; spring-growth harvested as hay then grazed; stockpiled and fall grazed; or will the field be used exclusively as a hay field?

The seeding mixture for each of these situations may be a little different due to the planned management. Consider what is currently in the field.

If weed control or suppression of existing vegetation is required, a frost seeding is not going to accomplish what you want. Plan for either chemical control of the vegetation or mechanical seed-bed preparation.

If there is limited vegetation, then broadcasting the seed with a spin-type seeder before the middle of March may be a very cost-effective method of renovating the field. Keep in mind however, that you will need to add 25 percent more seed to the typical seeding rate when making this type of seeding.

Ideally, the seed can be broadcast when we are getting a honeycomb effect of the soil from freezing and thawing so nature will help work the seed into the cracks of the soil to accomplish the seed to soil contact we need for germination and growth.

Options

Other good options for pasture seeding include using a no-till drill, which will place the seed at the desired depth. Check the drill to insure the shallow placement, as burying the seed too deep is one of the biggest culprits in seeding failures.

If there are piles of manure or wasted hay, these areas should be leveled or spread prior to seeding. If perennial broadleaf weeds are a concern, you may need to add 1 pint of 2, 4-D per acre to glyphosate to control the vegetation.

Glyphosate may be needed as a burn-down herbicide if going into existing forage stands to control the vegetation.

If a conventionally tilled seedbed is to be prepared before seeding, be sure to level and firm the seedbed before planting.

If using a conventional drill or a broadcast seeding procedure, you may lightly drag/harrow and cultipac once or twice after seeding to achieve adequate seed coverage and seed-to-soil contact.

Operation and maintenance during the seeding year should include mowing, spraying or clipping as needed during the growing season to control weeds, insects and other undesirable species. Do not mow or graze shorter than 4 inches for cool-season grasses and legumes.

Also, do not mow more than once per month and rotate livestock so they are not regrazing the same plant more than once per month.

Maintenance

Operation and maintenance for subsequent years should include treatment as needed for weed control, fertilize as required to meet soil test and production goals and repair of areas that have poor cover or are eroding.

For additional information or ideas on recommended seeding mixtures for your planned use, contact your local Natural Resources Conservation Service, local Soil and Water Conservation District, or your local Ohio State University Extension office

About the Author

The author is an area grassland conservationist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, located in the Licking County field office in Newark, Ohio; 740-670-5236. More Stories by Patty Dyer

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