By Ryan McGeeney
U of A System Division of Agriculture
With spring temperatures on the horizon, many ranchers and pasture managers are looking to their calendar, deciding when to turn cattle out for grazing or planning that first cut of hay.
Dirk Philipp, associate professor of animal science for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, said producers should first take look at the condition of their pastures, and make sure they’re setting themselves up for success.
“It’s time to give your pastures some love,” Philipp said.
He said the first step for producers to ensure a good grazing season is to walk through their pastures and assess the condition of the forage base, asking a few key questions along the way.
“Did the species composition change from the year prior?” Philipp said. “Do you see any kind of novel weed plants you normally don’t see there? Do you still have a 75 percent or greater coverage of your main forage base?”
Producers who plan to sell hay such as bermudagrass, and are looking to establish a clean stand of forage, should apply herbicides while both the grass and weeds are still dormant, Philipp said.
“Take a soil sample if you forgot to do so last fall,” he said. “This will help in assessing the needs for replacing macro-nutrients besides the nitrogen. Don’t let major nutrient deficiencies crop up over the years — it is very expensive to correct major deficiencies, especially potassium.
“Fescue is resilient, and you may not be able to judge deficiencies just from looking at the foliage such as is the case with orchardgrass,” Philipp said.
If growers haven’t already been applying nitrogen fertilizers to cool-season perennial grasses, time is running out on that opportunity, Phillip said.
“Ideally, you would apply 60-70 pounds of nitrogen in early to mid-March,” he said. “Orchardgrass, especially, is very responsive to nitrogen fertilization and will lose vigor rapidly if not fertilized.”
Philipp said growers should look for yellowish leaves and weak growth in orchardgrass, which are tell-tale signs that nitrogen is missing. However, hope is not lost if March came and went without fertilization.
“You can apply nitrogen fertilizer anytime during spring, but you obviously want to catch the major growth phase between March and early Summer,” he said.
Additionally, some forages require calibrated management to thrive. Forages such as orchardgrass, for example, need to be defoliated to maintain a healthy stand and to avoid a buildup of decayed leaves.
Philipp recommended stocking cattle on cool-season perennials when the canopy is about 18–24 inches.
“What’s important is to start grazing in the vegetative phase before plants reach maturity, but remove animals on time to retain enough leaf material for regrowth,” he said. “This means producers should find the ‘sweet spot,’ moving cattle to new paddocks and then removing them before the canopy becomes grazed too short.”