Test soil to maximize forage production

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Healthy soil
Healthy soil. (Farm and Dairy file photo)

“Most of the world will make decisions by either guessing or using their gut. They will be either lucky or wrong.”

— Suhail Doshi

Testing your pasture or hay field’s nutrients and pH should be part of your land management strategy. Soil testing provides more information (data) to producers so they can ensure their fields are healthy, productive, and can support the land usage.

Knowing your field’s nutrient status and pH is crucial for optimal forage production and directly relates to the success of the farm. Poor soils, lacking the necessary nutrients, will not yield as much forage growth, resulting in a lesser stocking rate and/or increase in supplemental feed.

Either way, it can cost you money.

Soil tests are relatively inexpensive, making it worth the investment.

Not too late

If you have never tested your fields before or if it has been a while, this fall is an excellent time to start testing.

With the heavy rainfalls, we experienced this season, you may find you need to replenish the soil’s nutrients to ensure sufficient forage growth for next spring. The excessive rainfall this summer encouraged grass to stay green when it would normally go dormant, resulting in more nutrients consumed from the soil.

If you decide to test, it is important to remember that soil recommendations are based on the assumption that the forage grown will be utilized. Therefore, it is important for producers to adjust the stocking rates and grazing management as necessary to ensure that the forage produced is used.

This is essential to maximizing the benefits from the investment of purchased fertilizer.

Getting started

Testing your soil is not a difficult task and many Extension offices have soil probes to loan out for free to assist in extracting the soil. As well as the probe, the Extension office can provide you information on how to take a quality soil sample.

Below are recommendations for sampling your fields:

  • According to West Virginia University’s state soil testing laboratory, fall sampling is better than spring sampling because the sample more closely represents the nutrient status as it affects crops.
  • Whether you take samples in the spring or fall, be consistent by taking samples at the same time of the year, every time you sample.
  • For our area, one soil sample should not exceed 5-10 acres.
  • For larger fields, subdivide into smaller areas.
  • Each sample should comprise of 15-25 borings taken randomly throughout the field.
  • Exclude areas that are not representative of the field; for example eroded area, wet spots, edge of the field, and high nutrient areas (watering and shade tree areas).
  • Each boring should be 2 to 4 inches deep, however, if you go down 2 inches for your first boring, then you should be consistent and go down 2 inches for every boring. Do the same if you sample down to 4 inches for your first boring.
  • Let your soil sample air dry in a shady spot and on a clean surface before submitting to the lab or extension office. Never heat the sample.
  • Pastures should be sampled every three to four years and at establishment.
  • Never sample immediately after applying, fertilizer, lime or manure.

Soil testing should be the first step in your grazing management plan. This information (data) will aid in the decision-making process.

When taking a soil sample remember to be consistent and keep your borings representative of the field you’re sampling.

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Marcus McCartney is an OSU Extension agriculture and natural resources educator in Washington County. Send questions or comments to Mccartney.138@osu.edu or write c/o Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem OH 44460.

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