Managing fertility and forage now can help keep pastures healthy

As the season begins to turn towards fall, now is the time to prepare your valuable pasture-land for cooler weather. Soil fertility, forage management, and management of livestock are all important things for the farmer to consider as autumn approaches.

Soil Fertility

When someone talks about applying fall fertilizer, nitrogen is usually the first thing to come to mind. “The optimum application window for fall nitrogen in fescue pastures starts around Aug. 1, and response to fall-applied nitrogen decreases incrementally after Sept. 1,” said Jill Scheidt, Dade County Agronomy Specialist with the University of Missouri Extension. “The average yield response to fall-applied nitrogen typically is less than response to spring-applied nitrogen. Depending on rainfall the fall nitrogen response can be quite variable. A favorable distribution of precipitation can lead to a large yield response.” She went on to note that research from Missouri and other states shows a positive response to rates of nitrogen over 100 pounds per acre, but the amount of response decreases at higher rates. Higher rates are also more likely to reduce legumes in mixed fescue-legume pasture. A rate between 50 and 100 pounds nitrogen per acre is justified in most pastures. Producers should choose the lower rate on pastures looking to maintain a high legume component.”

Forage Management

The fall is also a good time to consider overseeding your pastures to improve forage quality and reduce weed competition. Of particular importance when considering overseeding in the fall is timing. It is very important to get the seedlings established before it gets too cold. It is generally not recommended to seed later than early October at the latest. The later you seed the less likely the seedlings will be hardy enough to overwinter in an average year.

If you have stockpiled fescue to graze your animals on for the cool season, your decision to apply fall nitrogen comes into play again.

“The argument supporting fall nitrogen applications is the high quality and high utilization of properly managed stockpiled production. The ability to stockpile fall forage production and then strip graze it in late fall and winter insures most farmers will make good use of any increased yield in response to applied nitrogen,” said Scheidt.

“Through research, Rob Kallenbach (professor and State Extension Specialist, Division of Plant Sciences, University of Missouri) has shown stockpiled fescue maintains quality through March while the toxic element of ergovaline in tall fescue decreases by half by mid-January.”

Livestock Management

Since fall forage quality and quantity is not as abundant as it is over the summer, producers must be very proactive about managing their herd’s cool season grazing on stockpiled fescue and other forages. Rotational or Management Intensive Grazing (MiG) is a useful and beneficial system to put in place. “Under rotational grazing, only one portion of the pasture is grazed at a time while the remainder of pasture “rests.”

To accomplish this, pastures are sub-divided into smaller areas (referred to as paddocks) and livestock are moved from one paddock to another,” stated an article by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). “Resting grazed paddocks allows forage plants to renew energy reserves, rebuild vigor, deepen their root system, and give long term maximum production.” Experts caution against overgrazing, especially in the fall and winter when grasses take longer to replenish themselves. “Contrary to expectations, overstocked pastures decrease animal gain and forage production. Grazing forages close to the ground (i.e., less than 3 inches stubble height) decreases the amount of sugars and other nutrients left for pasture regrowth, thus reducing forage production in subsequent years,” Alex Rocateli, professor of Forage Systems at Oklahoma State University, has said.

If you start planning and implementing now, your fall pastures will be the envy of all your neighbors.


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