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Think About Putting Away Pasture for the Winter

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Posted Nov. 1, 2004

As winter approaches, a flurry of activities are necessary to winterize our homes, vehicles and equipment. The purpose is to prepare these items to get through the winter with as little trouble or damage as possible preventive medicine, one might say. A little preparation now will save a lot of time and effort later in the season. The same can be said for warm-season pastures.

The question is, "Are your pastures ready for the winter?" Have you planned well enough ahead to bring warm-season pastures through the winter and have them respond as needed or expected next spring? What should have been done, and what can you do now?

Begin with assessing your current pasture conditions. Determine the appropriate residual height and the quantity of forage remaining to be grazed. As you have read in NF Ag News and Views and many trade magazines, maintaining an appropriate residual height through the winter is critical for the health and vigor of forages the following spring. The residual matter insulates the soil surface, protecting the growth points of the "dormant" forages. It also minimizes erosion potential and can minimize the need for weed control, if managed properly.

Next, focus on using the remaining grazeable forage within the pastures. Each fall brings questions about which pastures to graze first. Much depends on the needs of the herds being pastured through the winter. Make plans to identify calving areas for spring calving herds. These pastures should have excess plant material remaining from the growing season that can be used for both grazing and bedding. These areas should be clean and ungrazed since before frost, if possible.

If high-impact areas are needed, try to use relatively level bermudagrass pastures. Bermudagrass is very responsive to fertility, and, if denuded of residual during the winter, it will usually recover the following spring, although it may be well behind other areas. Weed control may also be necessary next spring.

When it comes to grazing pastures after frost, where do we start? Assuming dry spring-calving cows, I would use the grazing pastures with introduced forages such as bermudagrass and Old World bluestems first (and any summer annuals that may still remain). This would be followed by any fall-fertilized stockpiled introduced forages and then the native grass pastures. If there is some cool-season forage managed for the cow herd, especially perennials such as fescue, I would save it as the last forage to be grazed. Keep in mind that the residual heights must be maintained and that calving areas need to be set aside, if at all possible.

When hay feeding is initiated, attempt to use the bermudagrass pastures when possible, minimizing the damage to any one location by continually moving the feeding area. The only area where concentrated feeding should be considered is on a poor upland site that is in need of organic matter and ground cover. Even then, these sites need to be managed so that they do not become overly unsanitary.

Finally, make plans to sample all fields that are in need of updated soil sampling. These would be introduced grass pastures and crop fields that have not been sampled in two to three years or that have been used to push production through fertility, or that have had soil amendments added such as lime to improve soil productivity. Also, any area to be converted to pasture grasses should be sampled. The winter season is an ideal time to accomplish this task.

By paying attention to pasture management during the winter season, your pastures will come through the cool season in good condition, ready to "spring" into action at the beginning of the growing season. Proper actions taken now during the "dormant" season will minimize the down time or delays in production when the spring growing season arrives.