Even if snow still covers your pastures and the groundhog says there are another six weeks of winter, it's time to think about readying your pastures for spring. Spring is always a busy season on the ranch, so it's best to plan for where you're headed and what you need to get done. Here are some spring jobs to think about.
Overseeding legumes in pastures is a good way to reduce dependence on high-priced nitrogen (N) fertilizer and increase summer productivity and quality in pastures.
Broadcasting seed on a bed of snow is one of my favorite ways to interseed legumes. The darker-colored legume seeds will melt into the snow and be drawn into contact with the soil as the snow melts.
On severely crusted snow, this doesn't work as well, so I wait for a fresh spring snow rather than spreading seed on the full winter's accumulation. Another reason to seed on snow cover is you can see where you've been.
My preferred seeding method is with an electric broadcast seeder on an ATV. You can cover a lot of ground in a day at minimal cost. We generally figure a no-till drill costs about $15/acre for interseeding, while the ATV costs less than $1/acre.
The broadcast strategy works well with any clover, as well as birdsfoot trefoil and lespedeza, but not so well with alfalfa. Alfalfa is more susceptible to late-season frost, and is better seeded with a no-till drill.
The recommended seeding rates for each species are: red clover — 4-6 lbs./acre; white or alsike clover — 1-2 lbs./acre; birdsfoot trefoil — 3-4 lbs./acre; and Marion or other annual lespedeza — 10-15 lbs./acre.
Applying soil nutrients
If you took soil samples last fall and need to apply phosphorus (P), potassium (K) or other micronutrients, you can apply fertilizer as soon as the snow melts. In the wetter parts of the U.S., spreading fertilizer with a bit of frost in the ground lets you cross ground that may be impassible a month later.
But, don't apply fertilizer with the ground frozen solid 1- to 2-ft. deep, due to the runoff risk. Apply after the main thaw, when a spring cold snap firms the surface again.
What about applying N for spring pasture? I generally don't advise it on a large scale. Most graziers already have too much spring pasture, and adding N just aggravates the problem.
For a lot of folks, that 40-60 lbs. of N applied before green-up translates to brush hogging a ton of wasted grass in July. Better to save the N application for later in the season, when it can help you grow grass when you really need it.
If you need to jump-start some pasture for early grazing, consider using 30-40 lbs. of N on a third of your pastures. The extra early grass will let you get cattle off hay a couple of weeks earlier.
Choose the pastures most likely to be grazed at the start of the season, and fertilize only those. Avoid early N fertilization and grazing on swampy pastures, where early grazing can do a lot of soil damage. With the high cost of N, use it as a specific management tool, not a blanket treatment.
If you intend to drag pastures, do it as soon as the manure pats are no longer frozen. And, drag the pastures with the heaviest accumulation from winter grazing or hay feeding first.
In mixed grass-legume pastures, there are lots of legume seeds in those piles waiting to germinate. If you drag early, more of those seeds will contact the soil, be more likely to germinate and help keep your legume stand going. If you wait until the manure pats are little green hills covered with clover seedlings, you destroy your seed bank. The rule with dragging is: “The earlier the better.”
You need no reminder about the rest of the work. Elk smashed the fences, snowdrifts pulled wire off the posts, the undrained tank froze and broke. You cattlemen in the South, count your blessings now. Those of us in the North and West will count ours in the summertime!
Jim Gerrish is a grazing management consultant based in May, ID, and former lead pasture researcher at the University of Missouri's Forage Systems Research Center in Linneus. Reach him at 208/876-4067, firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit http://americangrazinglands.com.