Basic Pasture Management
Not all pastures are the same and will vary enormously in their potential feed yield making them more or less suitable for larger or smaller varieties of livestock. You can calculate how many livestock your pasture should support based on its size. However, that number could rise or fall substantially, especially if you do not know your pasture in terms of its soil composition and the plants that grow in it. There are simple, relatively inexpensive management practices that you can apply to your pasture that will enable you to get better performance from it. This will cut back or even eliminate the need for supplemental feeding, thus keeping your livestock healthy, well fed, and also possibly saving you money. On the opposite side of the coin, pastures that are poorly managed will produce low yields of poor quality forage and particularly worn pastures may even harbor parasites that could infest your livestock. The implementation of some basic strategies can improve your pasture dramatically.
Soil and Fertilizer
The proper application of lime and fertilizer could, combined with other pasture management strategies, double the yield of a worn out pasture. In order to ascertain how much lime and fertilizer to apply you will need to obtain a soil test analysis to discover the acidity (pH) and the nutrient levels in your soil. You can obtain soil tests from your local Southern States dealer. Your state agriculture department should be able to point you in the right direction for advice and to where to get tests. Once you have a base test, continue testing every two to three years to monitor your soil's fertility.
Natural Fertilizer Spreading
Your livestock are fertilizing your pasture all of the time that they are in it but not uniformly, thus causing uneven areas where the animals will not graze close to their own droppings. Spreading the manure by using a chain link or harrow when the livestock have left the pasture will alleviate this problem; this practice may also reduce parasites by exposing them to air and light.
It is obvious that if livestock are penned up in the same field or paddock for the entire grazing season, then the plants in it are going to be grazed too short or even down to bare earth, thus causing damage and allowing weeds to gain a foothold. You are going to need to divide your pastures off and move your livestock into a new enclosure when it is appropriate. As a rough rule of thumb move your livestock into a grazing enclosure when the forage is around six inches high and move then off again when it is two inches high. This will also encourage the growth of the forage and will sometimes break the life cycle of parasites. You may also find that your livestock may prefer a certain area in the enclosure and may shun some areas altogether, often because the plants there may be not be a less favorite food; horses are renowned for, "spot grazing," as it is called. Once you move your livestock into another enclosure, you may find areas of long growth with seed heads that your livestock have left behind. Consider clipping these areas to a height of around two inches. Clipping two or three times a year helps provide uniform grazing, helps control weeds, and prevents grasses from going to seed. When time and the cost of tractor fuel could be an issue, you could consider moving smaller animals, such as sheep, into the grazing enclosure to do the job for you. However, monitor your pasture and be careful not to allow the forage to be grazed too short.
Weeds reduce the production of your pasture and may even harm your livestock. Although, healthy grazing forage cover achieved through the application of good management practices should usually crowd out unwanted weeds. Nonetheless, should weeds appear then early clipping of the area before the weeds become viable is usually effective or you could consider spot spraying with an appropriate chemical product.
Useful Links to State Agriculture Departments
West Virginia (www.wvagriculture.org)
North Carolina (www.ncagr.gov)
South Carolina (www.state.sc.us/scda)