Plan Now for Improving “Winter” Damaged Pastures

Check out all of your options available to help pasture paddocks to recover and become productive grazing paddocks again.

March 2, 2022

5 Min Read
9-28-21 cattle grazing GettyImages-141857042_1.jpg

It's not just roads and highways aren’t the only things that have suffered from a winter that’s alternated between sub-freezing temperatures, and abundant rainfall on top of already saturated surfaces. As spring quickly approaches, pastures and paddocks that served as cattle feeding areas this winter are a sea of pocked up mud. While road crews will be out repairing damaged roads by tamping cold patch into the potholes, it’s simply not that easy to repair soils that are expected to support life in the form of growing plants during the coming months.

That said, a key decision many face regards whether or not reseeding these pasture paddocks that suffered from Mother Nature’s abuse this winter is the most efficient option to get these areas back into productive forage? Let’s look at some options and management strategies that might be considered.

One low-cost option, at least in terms of out-of-pocket expense, is to do nothing. In the absence of competition from existing plants, given enough time nature will re-grow something in paddocks that were trampled while muddy. The cost in this option is time. If you have the land base to set aside those torn up paddocks through the spring and early summer, they will renovate themselves. Dragging these areas with a harrow once they dry a bit will level off the high spots, but beyond that we generally have plenty of seed bank in the soil that will eventually regenerate vegetation. Whether that seed bank contains desirable plants, or what percentage of desirable plants will make-up the re-growth are questions to be considered.

It’s likely in those paddocks where the sod base was torn up that summer annual weeds like pigweed, ragweed, barnyard grass and goose grass will show up in heavy numbers in addition to the grasses and clovers that had been present in the sod base. Clipping annual weeds off before they go to seed will allow more light into the grasses and clovers that are coming back. By mid to late summer a light grazing pass could be made on these paddocks. If they are not torn up again next winter, the sod base – especially if it was previously fescue – will continue to thicken and good rotational grazing management can put them back into productive pasture paddocks the following year. The main question that must be answered in this option is; do you have the time and pasture land base to be able to wait for the paddock to heal itself and perhaps lose an entire grazing season of productivity?

The next option to consider is re-seeding. Re-seeding offers the possibility to increase pasture productivity and to bring a new mix of forages into the pasture paddock. When Bob Hendershot, retired NRCS State Grasslands Specialist, spoke to graziers, one of the points he made is related to pasture species genetics. Bob always pointed out that row crop producers use new and improved genetics to increase crop yields and as livestock producers we seek to improve our livestock genetic base, but we don’t often give that same attention to pasture genetics. Bob frequently asked, “How old are the genetics in your pasture forages?” There have been advances in forages; grasses and legumes bred to better tolerate grazing, and genetics that allow plants to be more palatable and productive. A sacrifice paddock that has suffered from trampling and reduced stands may be an opportunity to bring some new and improved forage genetics into the pasture mix.

Talk with your seed representative or County Extension Agriculture Educator about a pasture mix of specific species that might work best for your situation. However, as we look at today’s cost of applying nitrogen to grass forages, all graziers should aim for 30% stand of evenly distributed legumes throughout a grass stand. At this level, supplemental nitrogen should not be needed in future years. If the area to be planted needs to be covered quickly due to erosion concerns and/or quicker production is needed for grazing, then include some annual ryegrass seed in the seeding mixture. Adding around 4 pounds of annual ryegrass per acre should provide some early cover and an early grazing pass because it is quick to germinate and grow.

If the choice is made to do a new seeding, this is also an ideal time to consider making any necessary adjustments to fertility. This obviously begins with a soil test.

Soil pH should be above 6.0, with a goal of 6.5. Soil phosphorus (P) level should be 30 to 50 ppm when using the Mehlich III soil test extraction. Given an average Ohio cation exchange capacity (C.E.C.) of 10, soil potassium (K) level should be at least 120 ppm. If your soil tests are reported in pounds per acre instead of ppm, then these numbers should be doubled, respectively.

If your soil is not close to these numbers it may be worthwhile to put off a spring seeding, apply the needed lime and fertilizer this spring, spend time controlling the weeds that will emerge and aim for an August seeding. In those paddocks that are severely torn up, it offers the rare opportunity in a pasture situation to spread lime and/or fertilizer and then use tillage to incorporate it into the root zone while smoothing out the soil surface and preparing a new seed bed.

There are options available that allow beaten up pasture paddocks to recover and become productive grazing paddocks again. The specific option chosen depends upon the resource base of the producer, farm forage goals, and timing. Regardless the option used, planning, management and some cooperation from Mother Nature are necessary to achieve success.

Source: Stan Smith, Ohio State Universitywhich is solely responsible for the information provided and is wholly owned by the source. Informa Business Media and all its subsidiaries are not responsible for any of the content contained in this information asset. 

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