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Pasture Management Can Start TODAY

When the weather starts warming up, people get excited about the ‘greening up’ of everything outside. Folks with pastures are no exception but it takes a better approach than just throwing some fertilizer out there to make it really green. Remember, all that ‘spring green up’ may include weeds which may be harmful to your animals and rob profits from your wallet. But just like any other important project, the outcome is often a result of the planning and preparations made ‘behind the scenes’. Pulling soil samples, adjusting the pH and fighting the weeds all fall into the ‘pre-fertilizing preparations’ that many people forget.

The first thing you need to consider is taking a soil sample of your pastures. The soil sample results are similar to the arrow on a road map that says ‘you are here’; it will tell us the pH of the soil and what levels of nutrients you already have. This will keep you from spending money on nutrients you don’t need and help focus on fixing the identified deficiencies. Your local County Extension Service or Southern States Cooperative can help you with the procedure for taking soil samples and mailing the samples to the appropriate soils lab.

Pasture forage

Manage pH level

Once the soil samples results are in hand, we need to look at the soil pH. For most pasture grasses, warm or cool-season, we’d like to shoot for a pH of somewhere between 6.0 and 7.0 on a 14 point scale. In the southeast, especially where we have been getting a lot of rain, our soils tend to be naturally in the low to mid 5’s so we’ll need to adjust the pH before we spend money on fertilizer. Limestone is the easiest way to build the pH and there are several forms available. For larger fields, agricultural lime is recommended due to cost and ease of application. . If you have a smaller farm, Southern States Cooperative sells SoluLime which is a very concentrated material that can be spread by an attachment on your riding mower, garden tractor or atv. The lime material will move into the soil each time you have a rain event, so it takes a little bit of time for it to start working. Some people believe that if you don’t put lime out in the fall that it’s too late and you’ll just have to wait until next year. I put spreading lime on pastures in the same category as going fishing; do it whenever you get the chance!!

For more information, read 'Applying lime to soil and crop nutrients to pastures in the fall will get you the most bang for your buck.’

Pasture Weed Control

The second behind the scenes preparation for pasture fertilizing is pasture weed control. A good healthy stand of grass does a great job of keeping the weeds at bay. Unfortunately, there are times of the year when the weather gets too ‘something’ ( hot, dry, wet, cold) or the animals spend too much time on one piece of ground and we end up with a weak stand of grass and a whole bunch of weeds. What we don’t want you to do is put a good dose of fertilizer out there and let the weeds hog all the nutrients. We need to sort out a weed (something the animals won’t eat) from the forages (something growing that the animals will eat) and then find an herbicide that will control one without hurting the other. Weeds are sorted into four very general categories: annuals, perennials, broadleaf and grasses. Annual broadleaf weeds are the most common and one of the easiest classes to kill because there are quite a few materials that will do the job very nicely. 2,4-D works great and is relatively inexpensive but there are no residual effects. Basically, it will kill the broadleaf weeds that the herbicide makes contact with and nothing else. If a new weed germinates the following day, it’s safe from the herbicide. Grazon Next HL (This product is labeled as Forefront HL in some of our states. Same product just different registration) is a combination of 2,4-D and Aminopyralid so it will kill the weeds and give you a couple of months of residual control as well. The key thing to remember is that weeds are easier to kill when they are small (2-3 inches); once they start to put on blooms it is very difficult to control them.

Cows in forage

Now It’s Time To Fertilize

Finally, after the soil samples were taken, the results evaluated, the pH adjusted and the herbicides applied, it is now time to apply the fertilizer. Usually, the soil sample results will have a recommendation for a fertilizer application as well. You may need the help of your local Southern States Agronomy professionals to help interpret the results and make a recommendation. Generally, the pastures will perform better if the fertilizer is applied in two or three small applications rather than one large application. For instance, if the recommendation is for 120 pounds of nitrogen (N), two applications (45 to 60 days apart) of 60 pounds each time would be better for the pasture. Three applications would be utilized even better but most folks settle for applying fertilizer twice a year.

On the fertilizer bag are three numbers that identify the percentage of nutrients in the bag. The first is nitrogen (N), the second is phosphorous (P) and the third is potassium (K), it is always in that order and they have to be on the bag. If you have large pastures, custom blending and bulk application are services offered at most locations.. If you have smaller pastures, bagged fertilizer offered in many different analyses may be a better choice to help satisfy the soil sample recommendations.

As a general rule of thumb, nitrogen (N) helps the plants’ top growth or the part we see and the animals graze. It is water soluble and will leach if we have a great deal of rain. Southern States offers a fertilizer treatment, NutriSphere, that minimizes the leaching; you’ll see it on some of our fertilizer bags as N-S-N in a small yellow circle. Phosphorous (P) helps the forage develop a healthy root system and it doesn’t leach or move very readily through the soil. That means that over time, you can build your P levels up to the point that you don’t need to add any more (that’s the benefit of the soil test!) so you can save some money on your fertilizer bill. Unfortunately, phosphorous can get bound on a molecular level with calcium, magnesium, iron or aluminum in the soil. On some of our fertilizers we offer a treatment called AVAIL (also in a small yellow circle on the bag) that will prevent that binding so it will be readily available to the plants. The potassium (K) is used by the plant much like our bodies use vitamin C; it keeps the plant healthy. One of the critical roles that K performs is in the regulation of water moving in and out of the plant. When it turns hot and dry in the summer, the potassium works to maintain the moisture in the plant to keep it alive and healthy. The potassium can leach out of sandy soils very quickly but will move more slowly in the heavier clay soils.

There you have it, just like any important project the details and preparations make all the difference in the world in how the results turn out. So when your neighbors come by and see the beautiful pastures and comment on how nice the place looks; you can tell them about the soil testing, lime spreading, weed killing and fertilizing or you can just play it off and say “thanks!”

Remember, a well-managed pasture can be one of the cheapest feeds providing efficient weight gain in livestock and grower profitability.

Contact a local Southern States store for details on how to make pastures provide more value to your farming operation.

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