One of the most common discussions I have is folks wanting to know if they can improve pasture or paddocks. Since many of the clients asking have limited sized pastures the answer has several parts.
Whether a paddock is five acres or a pasture is 25,000 acres between the fence lines there is always a production factor associated with pasture “rest.” Grass communities, even the mixed species sites require rest at the first of their growing cycle and after each period of use. In the spring grasses use the carbohydrate energy reserves stored in root systems or seeds to get their stalks up in the air. As the grass plant grows it becomes more and more capable of supporting itself. Grass species are “distichous” in that their leaves form in pairs. When they emerge as a two-leaf rosette they are weak and fragile. When they grow the 3-4 leaf stage they are immature. When they hit the 5-6 and 7-8 leaf stage they are usually trying to form a seed after which their nutrients are transferred to the seed and the leaf nutrient drops.
When most greases reach past the 4-leaf stage they begin to pump energy reserves back into the ground. When these reserves reach a level similar to early growth the leaves can be grazed without adverse impact on grass health – as long as they are not grazed too intensively. Each grass species has a specific period when they are strong enough to graze depending on precipitation, temperature and pre-growth energy levels. After being grazed many grass plants need 28-45 days of growth without grazing to recover!
So, Answer #1: Keep pastures healthy – DO NOT GRAZE THEM BEFORE THEY ARE READY AND THEN LET THEM REST. (behind the scenes answer = buy more hay to make your grass pasture stronger).
The next practice for health is to make sure your pastures have the nutrients they need. Test your soil and find out what needs to be added. Just applying nitrogen (or manure) can “burn” your pastures just like a lawn. Most effective pasture fertilization is done lightly over 2-4 applications. Remember to read the label and see if all fertilizer and herbicides have a re-entry grazing restriction. Since grass does not “fix” nitrogen like legumes such as alfalfa does – you will have to add some periodically for more plant growth. Nitrogen in fertilizer makes the green & protein, but Phosphorus stimulates root development making the stand stronger. Most effective pasture fertilization is in early spring and late fall when it has a little time to sink in and dilute. Visit with your local Extension Educator to discuss what level of fertilizer application may pay for itself and what levels will not capture an economic return.
So, Answer #2 is check and remedy your field nutrient levels.
Another great option to increase pasture productivity, other than more water, is to effectively control weeds. Many grass pastures will naturally fill in the thin spots if you control the undesirable plant species whether they are grasses or forbs. A late fall weed control regimen can give your desirable grass communities a leg up in the spring when they are struggling the most. Some herbicides have a residual that can stay until early spring.
Last but not least is the option of planting more grass. This can be a challenge considering that application, the right seed, weather, and a lack of disturbance needs to happen for a grass stand to excel. Some species may lay dormant for 2-5 years before conditions are right to germinate. Improper planting can leave a lot of seed exposed for the insects and birds to dine on.
No matter what you decide to do – rest and weed control are the best management practices. If you have questions about pasture grasses or improving pastures please call. Scott Cotton (307)235-9400 in central Wyoming.