EVALUATING YOUR PASTURE

Evaluation of your pastures should include observing its current state and monitoring changes over time to determine the health and condition of the plant communities. A basic indicator of pasture health is vegetative cover—both density and species composition. Good vegetative cover, with little bare ground, slows the movement of water and lessens the impact of rain on the soil surface. Stands begin to decline when, lack of soil moisture, limited nutrient availability, lower density of plants and unknown management history combine to affect health and limit productivity. The additional suggestions below can help you determine the health of your stand.

(1) Assess plant population and density Observe the existing plants and density of the stand. Ideal density may vary by region and growing conditions. Dry regions may require a lower plant density to reduce competition for available resources. In areas of high rain fall, higher densities can be sustained, maximizing yield and reducing weed introduction. (2) Identify any weeds present Weeds compete for sunlight, moisture and space. Over-grazed, unhealthy forage stands are susceptible to weed infiltration. Weeds can discourage grazing and prevent livestock from accessing nutritional forage. Assess the weed contamination across the field, and determine if weed control is necessary. (3) Evaluate soil/nutrient cycling Soil damage can occur by multiple means; i.e. compaction, hoof damage (pugging), improper nutrient cycling etc. One of the ways nutrient cycling occurs is when livestock return nutrients to the soil through manure and urine. Uniform distribution of nutrients throughout a pasture is a sign of good herd and pasture management. Frequently moving mineral and water sources as well as restricting livestock from areas where they tend to linger will improve nutrient distribution across the field.

Tips for Using Companion Crops

Tip #1 – Seed the companion crop at 1⁄ 3 to 1/2 of normal seeding rate. Apply forage seed in a separate pass, and at an angle to your companion crop to reduce competition and to aid in depth control. 

Tip #2 – Increase forage seeding rate to achieve desired plant densities in the stand as the companion crop may reduce forage seed establishment.

Tip #3 – Remove the companion crop as early as possible. This will reduce the amount of competition for sunlight, moisture and nutrients.

Tip #4 – If harvesting the companion crop for grain (not recommended), remove all straw from the field. If that is not an option, chop and spread the straw thoroughly across the field.

Tip #5 – If seeding forages where soil erosion is prominent, it is recommended that a cover crop be used. The cover crop will aid in covering and protecting the soil during the forage establishment.

HOW TO ESTABLISH A PRODUCTIVE FORAGE STAND

The establishment phase is the critical first step in a productive and healthy forage stand. To maximize your success follow the agronomic guidelines below.

Time of Seeding
Proper timing can vary greatly by region, species and purpose. Ample availability of moisture during establishment is key to good germination rates and providing a strong forage foundation you can depend on. Your local extension agent is a good resource for recommendations specific to your location.

Seedbed Preparation
Preparing a firm seedbed will add control to seeding depth, and reduces surface drying. Properly prepared, it should not leave a footprint deeper than 1/4 inch.

Weed Control
Starting with a weed-free seedbed allows your carefully chosen seed to establish unhindered by competition of unwanted plants (weeds). It will also save time and money in the long-term management of your field.

Quality Seed
Choosing varieties with improved benefits can make all the difference in profitability and ease of management. Science and breeding have provided us with many improved traits such as disease resistance, higher nutritional value, and resistance to a barrage of other environmental stresses that nature can inflict. Mechanical quality is also important, look for high purity and minimal weed content

Inoculation
Most legumes should be inoculated with the appropriate
treatment to ensure nitrogen fixation.

Fertility
The soil should be tested and amended accordingly. Keep in mind that the most cost effective time to fertilize a forage crop is at seeding. Consult a local agronomist for recommendations specific to your region.

Seeding Depth
Most forage species should not be planted deeper than 2-3 times the width of the seed. Care should be given to following the specific recommendations for each species being used. Many failures occur from planting seed too deep.

Seeding Rates
Seeding rates depend on seed size, quality, planting method, row spacing and annual precipitation. Planting at an improper rate can allow for weed introduction or create competition issues as plants vie for available resources. Both scenarios can reduce productivity.

Companion Crops
Some producers choose to plant forages with companion or ‘nurse’ crops such as barley or oats. Companion crops can protect young seedlings from wind and water erosion and protect against weed infiltration during the establishment period. If using a companion crop, see the tips on the back
of this guide.