Keeping your pastures and forages in prime shape should be one of your top priorities as a farmer or rancher. Grass is the lifeblood of any livestock operation, and should be treated with care. One of the best ways to keep the health of your pastures up is to evaluate your forage needs before the cooler fall temperatures set in. Pasture evaluations are one of the best tools available to keep your farm in good grass.
One of the best ways for a stockman to evaluate their pastures before autumn rolls around is to simply take a walk. “The best way to evaluate pastures is for the farmer and rancher to walk their fields in late summer and see what is growing. Late summer is the best time to evaluate these fields because that is the time to make essential decisions about a possible need for a complete renovation or interseeding to thicken up the stand,” said Tim Schnakenberg, Regional Agronomy Specialist for the University of Missouri. “If you desire to rebuild the cool season grass base in your fields, it’s best to have them planted this fall. This capitalizes on the timing of cooler weather and new rainfall that will get the crop up and growing well before winter weather sets in.”
Schnakenberg notes that forage testing can sometimes be helpful when doing fall pasture evaluations: “Though pasture growth can be evaluated with a forage analysis, these tools work best for monitoring harvested hay. Forage quality can be visually evaluated by walking fields and checking the stand, determining appropriate forage heights to turn cattle into a field and when to move them to another pasture and watching for maturity levels of the forage crop.” Schnakerberg also recommends running soil tests every so often during your fall pasture evaluations: “Soil testing should be done every 3-4 years to monitor the fertility needs of the pasture.”
When you are evaluating your pastures prior to fall, there are a few key components to look for during your observation. “Identify what plants are growing and occupying space in these fields and whether or not they are helping you meet your grazing needs. In many cases pastures are full of broadleaf weeds and undesirable grass species and there is little desirable grass left. That tells the producer that perhaps a complete renovation is needed for the field,” Schnakenberg said. “If the desirable grass is present and weeds are still in abundance, a pasture spray may be in order to get them under control and prevent weed seeds from dropping for next year. Most pastures can continue to be productive with a few weeds. Weeds that are more of a concern are ones that prevent grazing altogether such as woody, thorny and invasive weeds. Examples include blackberry, sumac, multi-flora rose, sericea lespedeza, spotted knapweed, thistles, poison hemlock and buckbrush.”
Keeping lower quality forages out of your pastures should be a top priority during your pre-fall evaluation. “Some unproductive grasses that may occupy a pasture include broomsedge, purpletop, Linheimer’s panic grass, barnyardgrass, goosegrass and foxtail. Many of these grasses are summer annuals and may be an indication that the desirable stand of perennial cool-season grasses is not up to par,” said Schnakenberg.
While fall pasture evaluation is important, this important management practice is not limited to the cooler seasons. Schnakenberg stressed the importance of routine evaluation -“Pastures should be monitored frequently. Farmers should be checking cattle frequently each week. As they check cattle, they should also pay attention to the forages the cattle have available to them and the condition of the pasture. Livestock producers can also evaluate the type of forage that is being grazed by the manure piles left behind by the cattle.”