Having a good winter pasture can reduce or eliminate the need to feed hay and, additionally, is a source of animal nutrition which is generally better than that of hay or ensilage. However, a good winter grazing pasture can be obtained if the right steps are taken during the summer.
David Moore, a regional field-crop sales manager for MFA (a Midwest-based regional farm supply and marketing cooperative) said for fescue as well as orchard grass he recommends two nitrogen feedings each year, measured so that two-thirds of the nitrogen is delivered in the spring, and the other third in late August or early September. As to other elements, he said, “I would stress the use of soil tests to know exactly how to fertilize those fields.” Another MFA manager recommended from experience that a 3-1-2 fertilizer is best for cool-season grasses, and that it should be used in middle August just before a rain shower is forecast.
University of Missouri extension agronomist Tim Schnakenberg, however, said that no across-the-board fertilizer recommendation should be made without a soil test. “Fertility levels are going to be across the board,” said Schnakenberg. “I speak out on that quite a bit… you have to have a soil test.” As to the kind of soil test to use, he recommends taking a soil sample to a laboratory rather than using an on-farm test kit.
“It goes bad after awhile,” Schnakenberg said. “The reagents and things that they use can get old, and the accuracy can be good at first, but (diminish) later.”
Fertilization of pasture in late summer can boost fall growth enough to make an adequate grazing pasture by midwinter if hay is cut no later than early summer. Schnakenberg recommends that a pasture cut for hay in midsummer and (if necessary) fertilized in late summer should be left to grow ungrazed, and that livestock should not be turned out onto it until late December or early January, when the fall and early winter growth has had a chance to develop.
Ranchers speak of “stockpiling pasture” for the winter, but according to some agronomists, this phrase is a misnomer. Living pastures are always either gaining nutrients or expanding nutrients. They must therefore be managed to gain as much as possible in the fall and early winter months, and to expend as little as possible during the middle and latter part of the deep winter. Excessive or unnecessary nitrogen application can make the grass too soft, without enough cellulose to stay green in the cold months. Moreover, endophyte fungus is also a concern in fescue.
Moore said that the highest concentration of endophytic fungus is in the seed heads, and that by making hay “before it begins to seed out, before it begins to head out, we reduce the (fungus).” He also noted that later hay, produced when the grass is not going to seed, “will typically have considerably less endophyte in it.” Nitrogen, if applied in excess, can feed the problem; as Schnakenberg said, “The more nitrogen you use, it can bring the fungus on even stronger.”
In order to limit the amount of endophyte that grazing animals consume, he recommends moving them to a pasture of warm-season grasses during the summer months, rather than having them eat fescue and orchardgrass all year long. He also suggested adding clover or lespedeza to the pasture.
Another pasture maintenance tip is to wait for each paddock to grow after fertilizing it in either the spring or fall of the year. In addition to allowing the grass to develop, this also keeps the animals out of potentially high-fungus environments. Rotating frequently is of less importance come winter, since the grasses are growing so slowly, but there must be enough grass to support the animals before winter begins. This is one reason why cool season pasture grass management is most important in late summer, before the autumn growth spurt (ecologists call it “second spring”) begins.
When considering fertilizers, remember not to overlook lime. For liming, however, there is no specific best time. Both Moore and Schnakenberg said, in almost exactly the same words, that the best time to lime a field is “whenever you can get a lime truck over it.”


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