Winter thoughts include whether to plant new forage this spring

Winter is the time when producers try to minimize their outdoor activities and spend time planning for the growing season ahead.

They take a little extra time and look at the ads in publications, attend meetings to learn about the latest and greatest “thing,” and talk to other producers to find out what has worked for them.

Usually ruminant livestock producers’ thoughts turn at some point to their pasture.

Pasture thinking. Have you ever found yourself saying, “My pasture is not producing like I think it should; I wonder if planting a new grass will help?”

I get this question in various forms from producers each winter.

To be honest, at times I struggle with how to answer this question.

First, I think that the improvement in forage genetics currently available would be advantageous to many livestock producers. But I also believe that most producers would benefit from planting temporary fences.

Pasture production. My struggle in giving an answer comes from the first part of the question.

Why is the pasture not producing? In most cases the answer is in the management of the pasture, not the forage.

Two weeks ago, Dr. Barker and Dr. Sulc wrote toward the end of their column, “Excellent genetics will not save you from poor management.”

Yes, planting a new forage may not be the answer for everybody.

Have you ever thought that you selected what you are growing not by what you plant but by the way you have managed it?

The forage mix you currently have in your pasture is what will survive under your management.

Examples. The easiest example is clovers.

Clovers love sunlight. Using livestock to manage the grass height will open up the canopy and allow clovers to survive.

This is an observation I have heard countless times from people who are just starting to apply grazing management to their pastures.

Here is another common example.

I get inquires from producers wanting to renovate a field that has been taken over by endophyte infected fescue.

Usually the infected fescue became established in part of the field from a conservation practice, road way or feeding mature hay. Over the years the fescue has taken over the field.

Reasoning. There are several reasons why this happens.

Fescue is not the most palatable grass during the growing season so livestock will leave it alone unless forced to eat it.

This selection by the animals results in the fescue being allowed to mature and set seed, while the other forages may be weakened from over grazing.

Fescue can also thrive at lower soil fertility levels than the other grasses. This is one reason it is used in conservation practices, road cuts and reclaimed strip-mined land.

Other grasses would die in these environments.

It’s not a fast process, but over time soil fertility will go down in pasture.

And let’s be honest, fertilizing pasture does not rate as a high priority for a lot of livestock producers.

Management. OK, the management of the grazing, or lack there of, has favored the fescue. On top of that, the management of the fertility has favored the fescue.

It should not be a surprise that fescue has taken over the field.

Management will affect the forage species you have in your pastures.

Favoring plants. Another example of how management can favor certain types of plants can be found in agronomic crop production.

Currently weed scientists are talking about winter annuals that a few years ago were not a big issue for crop producers.

The switch to more herbicide-tolerant crops and post application of herbicides are thought to have allowed this type of weed to survive and thrive.

Changing the forages in the pasture without changing the management is not the long-term answer to the basic problem.

Consider this: At a conference several years ago, Woody Lane, a livestock nutritionist from Oregon, stated “If you plant a new forage without changing your management, then in five years you will end up with the same forage you have now.”

Money. Establishing a new grass can be costly.

Killing the existing sod with herbicides and/or tillage, correcting soil fertility, the seed and planting all have a cost.

Add in the reduced production until the new seeding is established, and it will cost several hundred dollars per acre.

Do you really want to go to the time, trouble and cost of establishing a forage that will be gone in a few years?

Without changing your management you are not going to realize the full benefit of the planting.

First things first. The first thing you should do to improve your pasture production is to improve your management of the pasture. It will also be the cheaper option.

You can learn about improving you pasture management at any number of grazing schools in Ohio.

Contact your local extension office or Soil and Water Conservation District to find one near you.

(Jeff McCutcheon is an OSU Extension, Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent in Knox County. Questions or comments can be sent in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460.)

About the Author

Jeff McCutcheon is an Ohio State University Extension, Agriculture and Natural Resources Educator in Knox County. More Stories by Jeff McCutcheon

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