Pasture Planting Decisions

What are you going to plant this spring for your pasture program? The first thing to plant is fence posts. By far the biggest gains in pasture management come from a rotational grazing system and fence allows you to do that effectively and conveniently. Cattle should be trained to electric fence and once trained they will respect it and allow you to conveniently mange your pastures. A one or two wire electric fence should reliably contain livestock provided you are providing palatable quality forage in sufficient quantity to meet their needs.

Managed pastures will provide significantly more forage for your livestock over the grazing season and will allow you to minimize the impact of a dry summer on pasture growth. Once you have a rotational grazing system in place which benefits your livestock by increasing the forage productivity there are other steps that you can implement to enhance your grazing program.

Over seeding existing pastures with a legume will help to increase forage production and forage quality. Clovers (white clover 1-2 lbs/ac, red clover 3-5 lbs/ac) and trefoil (2-3 lbs/ac) are the preferred species for Ontario situations. They can be broadcast early in the spring and should establish reasonably well provided there is good seed to soil contact and there is sufficient soil moisture to grow the seedling plants. Mixing some trefoil seed in the salt or mineral is another easy way to increase the legume content in a pasture.

If you are planting a new pasture consider how you are going to graze it - type of livestock, do you want early pasture, full grazing season or late fall for stockpile pasture?

Orchardgrass and meadow brome are excellent choices for early grazing through to early fall. Reed Canary grass is an excellent grazing species that does better than most species in moist soil and also does well in dry soils because of its large spreading root system. If you want to emphasize late fall grazing or even stockpiling for use into November and December then tall fescue would be the better choice.

Including legumes in the pasture mix is essential to get maximum production; alfalfa provides high quality forage and has good tolerance of summer heat and dry soil conditions. White clover is an excellent grazing species that also has the capability to spread through the pasture. The clovers and alfalfa run the risk of causing bloat if they make up more than half of the animals diet, although with proper management you can go well beyond this level. If you can provide a long rest period for the pasture consider Birdsfoot trefoil as the legume. Trefoil has high tannin levels that act to prevent bloat. Trefoil does need to flower and set seed at some point during the year if you want the stand to last, so at some point you need to provide a long rest period for this to happen.

Annual crops may have a place in your pasture program, depending on when you want extra pasture consider sorghum sudan grass for July to early September grazing, summer seeded oats for September /October grazing and turnips or other brassicas for late September to November grazing. Corn is an option that works well for some producers; corn is very productive and can provide grazing from August through to mid winter. The corn will need to be strip grazed with a fresh strip given every 1-2 days and there is no re-growth with corn.

Soil fertility is critical for good plant growth. Soil tests should be taken every 3 years to give you a bench mark of soil fertility. Ideally, the pH will be above 6; if it is below 6 then follow the soil report recommendations for applying lime to correct the pH. Both the phosphorous and potassium soil tests should be in the medium range (P 15-20 ppm with the sodium bicarbonate test and K 100-120 ppm). If the soil fertility is below these levels you will see a response to additional fertility. If the pasture is predominately grass or contains less that 30% legume you will see a significant response to nitrogen. Applying 40-50 kg/ha of actual nitrogen will increase grass growth. This amount should be applied in early June and again in early July to get maximum response from the grasses.

Planting fence posts will provide the best opportunity to increase the yields from your pastures this year and in the coming years. A pasture system with a sufficient number of pastures or paddocks and quality perennial and annual forage will provide excellent returns to the livestock producer.

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