Tuesday, February 20, 2024
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Procrastinated Pasture

I’ve left a small amount of pasture untouched since spring. It originally wasn’t done intentionally, but I found myself needing more animals this year and just didn’t get them. It wasn’t just the price of purchasing more, it really was just a time thing; lack of sufficient time that is.

There are lots of varieties of Desmodium as these pictures from a quick Google search show. Click here to head to a site where you can learn more and find pictures of the different types.
There are lots of varieties of Desmodium as these pictures from a quick Google search show. Click here to head to a site where you can learn more and find pictures of the different types.

I am actually surprised by the quality of that stand and the abundance of native forbs and legumes. Lots of desmodium, better known as tickfoil, tick-trefoil, beggars tick or stick-tights…you know, those things that stick to your pant leg and are bean-shaped. There has always been a few around, but they have multiplied rapidly the last couple years. When vegetative, they have good nutritional value and are readily consumed by both cattle and sheep. The mature seed, although a nuisance to pick off your clothes, are a good high-energy food source for quail and other upland birds.

I like diversity in the pasture and when native plants, especially legumes, thrive you know the whole system is thriving and improving. Some might call it a weed (a weed is any plant out of place or where not wanted), but in this case, it is where it should be growing and so a good thing. Now, cockleburs, jimsonweed or horse nettle are just weeds and best not found in the pasture, though I’m sure they have their place. I’m just not sure where that is.

Where was I? Oh, my procrastinated portion of pasture. I know I will have potential gain in more soil organic matter; dense, deep roots formed by maturing plants. Though a large amount of forage on the surface can add to the duff or cover and eventually be broken down for other organisms to use, what is going on below ground is where you really make the biggest differences in carbon. The more plant growth you have, the bigger and more mature it reaches, the more roots it is going to grow. If the plant has lots of fibrous roots, you will add carbon to the soil. The organic matter on this site has increased almost 2% in the last 5 years. There was a time when I would have said that that was impossible. I’ve been convinced for several years now that plant height has a major impact on soil quality, plant regrowth and yield over time. What surprises me now is how far we can possibly take it.

An old monoculture field of tall fescue would not improve itself without major shifts in management. Overgrazing and multiple cuttings of hay, especially with limited fertility is more likely to take you in the wrong direction and decrease forage and soil quality. Twelve or fifteen years ago if I had skipped an area and not grazed it until this time of year it would have been very disappointing and the livestock would have been glaring at me too. But, because of the increased soil organic matter and below-ground life, we have boosted and invigorated the soil and it really works now. It is just not the same.

Victor's procrastinated pasture looks worse than it really is.
Victor’s procrastinated pasture looks worse than it really is.

I think I may have taken it to extremes this year, but again it is much better than expected. I aim to do some sampling of the forage grazed for quality and probably check the ergovaline (endophyte toxin) levels in the tall fescue present. The big question will be answered when it is grazed and if the livestock give their approval or not.

I do think that we can afford to lose some quality (tongue in cheek) and “harvested” yield to reap the benefits of improving soil quality which will provide long-term compounding interest. I also think there are tradeoffs to start with. Out of curiosity, I put about 40 units of nitrogen on this field to have something else to compare to. It will be interesting to see any differences in grazing preferences and crude protein values. This deferred forage would be just “fair to middling” for long-term stockpile, but would make decent forage for high density short duration grazing the next 60 days or so. Either way, it would be best utilized in daily or two day allocations to be the most efficient with it.

Longer rest periods between grazing periods allow for deeper roots no matter what system is used. I prefer a 60 to 70 day rest where major soil organic matter building is needed, the rest of the time 14 to 45 days, depending on the time of year and speed of regrowth. Enough with that topic.

We still have time yet to get cover-crop planting done for some nice fall and possibly spring grazing. I really like the combination of cereal rye, oats and a forage-type turnip. The oats and turnips will excel this fall and provide lots of good grazing opportunities while the rye will lay low and then take off strong next spring. With adequate moisture I have seen yields of three or more tons per acre produced in a very short period of time. Ideally, these stands should be strip-grazed with a back fence if you want to try and get multiple grazing periods from them. The weather does play a big part though. We will need to have some moisture and ideally good growing conditions for several weeks and a late freeze. The turnips will tolerate colder conditions than the oats and quite often can be grazed even under snow. The spring oats will normally not survive the winter.

Keep on grazing!

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Victor Shelton
Victor Shelton
For more than 25 years, Victor Shelton, Indiana agronomist and grazing specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, has provided advice about grazing’s best practices. He travels across the state conducting pasture walks, working one on one with farmers and participating in grazing talks. He also writes a newsletter called "Grazing Bites" as a way to talk about current and seasonal grazing issues and what farmers need to be prepared for.

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