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How to Manage Pastures When Winter Isn’t Wintry

By   /  January 25, 2016  /  Comments Off on How to Manage Pastures When Winter Isn’t Wintry

It’s been a pretty mild winter for most of the U.S. and Canada. With that in mind, here are two perspectives on what’s up with your pastures, and the management implications.

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Thanks to the Maryland Sheep Breeders Association for sharing this article from their winter newsletter!

WHAT IS PUGGING? The weight of livestock animals has its impact on the soil and the feed growing in that soil. The indentations of the animals’ hooves into soil, especially damp or wet soil, are called pugs. Soil structure can be dramatically altered by pugging. The pug holes are areas where seedlings and regrowth have been smashed back underground.

WHAT IS PUGGING?
The weight of livestock animals has its impact on the soil and the feed growing in that soil. The indentations of the animals’ hooves into soil, especially damp or wet soil, are called pugs. Soil structure can be dramatically altered by pugging. The pug holes are areas where seedlings and regrowth have been smashed back underground.

Grazing and Pasture Renovation

Should my pasture management be different when winter, well—isn’t winter? Mild weather in winter does make things interesting and we do need to adjust some of our practices but it also gives use opportunities. First and foremost, our cool-season grass were still growing in late December, although not as rapidly as in April or October. So on the plus side, our grazing season was extended for our established pastures. But for new seedings, these temperatures can be a double-edged sword. The new grass may grow too much and smother if we get a heavy snow. If growth is in excess, flash grazing is acceptable. But remember that flash grazing is just that quick. Do not overgraze, and do not allow animals to “pug up” pasture soils (which happens especially when soil is too wet).

These temperatures also give us an opportunity to start renovating those worn-out paddocks. Over-graze them and pug them up. Also feed hay on these paddocks. Then in the spring, disk and seed with either an annual grass or oats, or seed a perennial grass along with oats as a nurse crop. If you choose an annual grass or oats, follow it with millet or sudangrass in early June and then reseed with a perennial grass in late summer or early fall

This weather does give us good conditions for lime to be translocated into the soil. So if your pasture’s soil test is calling for lime, apply it now. Also, plan now and book your fertilizer needs, so you can apply these nutrients as soon as spring temperature and moisture allows. With the warmer early-winter temperatures, nutrient uptake and growth may have used more nutrients during the cold months than normal, and early fertilizer application may pay off with better spring green-up and growth.

We know that farming involves a lot of moving parts; there are few hard and fast rules. Be flexible and proactive, but also be prepared to be reactive when circumstances change. You know they will.

Wishing you green grass and good grazing!

Jeff Semler is a Maryland Cooperative Extension educator based in Washington County.

What’s My Forage Doing?

dsc_0088Unless you have been living under a rock for the past couple of months, you’ve probably noticed we‘ve been having some unusual winter weather. Recently, I received a few questions about how all this warm, mild weather might affect pastures. Below is my take on a few of these issues:

How do our common pasture species respond to this kind of “winter” weather? What is happening to grasses, clovers, and forbs presented with spring weather in what should be early winter?

The simple answer is: not much. Despite all the comparatively warm, wet weather, you probably noticed that pastures haven’t grown much. Most of our cool-season forage plants go dormant in winter in response to cold temperatures and shorter day lengths. Although it has been pretty warm recently, day lengths are still too short to
break dormancy. Cool-season plants like fescue, bluegrass, and clovers mostly are ‘long-day’ plants, meaning they don’t start really growing until day lengths get longer in the spring.

That is part of the reason we usually end up with such a surplus of forage that time of year. In terms of growth though, one important thing that happens to grasses and some legumes in the fall is new bud formation. These axillary buds grow near ground level will be used for shoot growth next year. So, an extra-long fall like we are having this year should allow for plants to put on ample buds and maybe add some extra leaf area. Both of those factors should be good for forage growth come spring.

What’s happening with the plant’s annual cycle with this sort of weather anomaly (nutrient storage, etc.)? Does top growth this time of year affect future growth (storing of sugars or other reserves of energy) come spring?

Yes. Although the amount of solar energy that reaches the earth’s surface is greatly reduced during winter, some photosynthesis should occur when it gets warm enough. That’s generally a good thing, since any extra sugar/energy
generated from photosynthesis will probably be put into storage below ground. The extra sugars in roots will help support vigorous growth early in the spring (weather depending, of course). Another good thing is that extra sugars will help boost the cold-tolerance of plants. So when the cold weather ever returns, these plants should be
in good shape to handle it.

Are there special management practices shepherds (or any graziers) should consider?

Probably not anything special. In my view, it is still most important to maintain a good canopy cover on your pastures this time of year—at least 3-4 inches if possible. That amount of canopy should allow for enough leaf area to maintain some photosynthesis during mild weather, which again should be a good thing. Most pastures are also pretty wet now— optimal conditions for soil compaction and disturbance from hoof traffic. So unless you have a lot of stockpiled forage, trying to graze off any extra pasture growth now is probably just not worth it overall.

I probably would recommend checking your soil fertility now. I suspect most soil pathogens and winter annual weeds are loving this warm, wet weather. Maintaining good soil fertility levels, especially pH and potassium, might help forage plants cope with potentially higher disease and weed pressure down the road.

Benjamin F. Tracy is associate professor of grassland ecosystem management at Virginia Tech.

natglc-logo-1Thanks to the National Grazing Lands Coalition for making this article possible. Click on over to see the great work they do for all of us. Thank them for supporting On Pasture by liking their facebook page.

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About the author

editor and contributor

Rachel's interest in sustainable agriculture and grazing has deep roots in the soil. She's been following that passion around the world, working on an ancient Nabatean farm in the Negev, and with farmers in West Africa's Niger. After returning to the US, Rachel received her M.S. and Ph.D. in agronomy and soil science from the University of Maryland. For her doctoral research, Rachel spent 3 years working with Maryland dairy farmers using management intensive grazing. She then began her work with grass farmers, a source of joy and a journey of discovery.

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