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Top Eight Spring Pasture Management Considerations

Posted Apr. 1, 2008

What a difference a year makes! In 2006 we experienced the driest growing season on record, only to be followed by the best growing season in 2007. No doubt our pastures have seen the worst of times and the best of times in a very short time frame. As one of my colleagues, Eddie Funderburg, stated recently, your pastures are probably not as good as we saw last year or as bad as we saw in 2006. Fortunately, the worst year was followed by the best year, and most pastures have recovered from the drought. Now the bad news - we are probably still in a long-term dry spell that will last for several more years. According to most weather prognosticators, last year was one of those good years situated smack-dab in the midst of several not-so-good years. So the question that begs to be asked is how do we manage our pastures this year?

The following are some suggestions for you to consider as you make preparations for your pasture management this spring.

  1. Inventory your forage supply, both pasture and hay reserves. Do you tend to have good residuals in the pastures and hay left over most years? If you answer yes for most of the last 10 years, you are probably stocked about right.
  2. Assess the overall condition of each pasture, and determine if pastures are improving or declining. If the desirable or preferred grasses are thick and vigorous, your stocking rate may be correct. If pastures are thinning and desired forages are declining, then the stocking rate is too high.
  3. Evaluate the need for weed control measures. If you have a significant number of weeds annually, you could be stocked too heavily. As a rule of thumb, a pound of weeds displaces a pound of grasses. The presence of weeds (or forbs) is less of a concern if you are managing for wildlife than if you are managing cattle only.
  4. Reassess the stocking rate. If you have generally utilized more hay than planned the majority of the last few years, then you are probably overstocked.
  5. Observe the condition of your cattle coming out of the winter and remember their condition as they went into the winter. If the cattle tend to go into the winter in a condition score of less than five, you are probably overstocked. If they come out of the winter in a condition score of four or less, you could be overstocked and/or are undersupplementing.
  6. Soil test if you have not done so recently. Examine fertilizer requirements carefully. With fertilizer prices being higher than ever, apply fertilizer where you can get the biggest bang for the buck. Generally, if phosphorus and potassium are needed in addition to nitrogen on a pasture, it will take a highly productive soil type to achieve an economical response.
  7. Plan your pasture management for the growing season. Determine the grazing sequence if you have different forage types and multiple pastures. Choose areas to be fertilized, hayed and weed-sprayed, and the timing of events.
  8. Again, reassess the stocking rate for your operation. During long-term dry periods, it is often wise to stock more conservatively than aggressively, and keep in mind that 2007 is not the year on which to base your stocking rate. Stocking rate is usually the most important variable in pasture management and probably the one that gets the least attention. Through proper (or more conservative) stocking, many of the other input considerations of pasture management could be reduced.