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Spring “To Do” List for Grass Managers

ToDoListAs winter loosens its surly grip and dreams of spring abound, it’s a good time to remind yourself how important it is to actively managing your grass and forage resources. There is no secret formula and only one rule: Think grass first. If you ask yourself “what’s best in the long term for my forage resources?” and let the answer be your guide, you will make improvements. With that in mind let’s take a moment as spring approaches and apply some grass first management principals to some common spring problems farmers’ encounter.

Prevent Grass Tetany

Here’s what happens in our pastures that causes grass tetany: As the grasses explode from their winter slumber, their vegetative growth exceeds the plant’s physiological capabilities to take up magnesium. While the livestock are beside themselves with udder joy (pun intended) they eat themselves into a case of hypomagnesemia (low magnesium concentration in blood). Lactating cattle are especially susceptible to what can be a very serious and even fatal condition.

SpringGrassThere are simple steps to prevent this or at least minimize the likelihood of grass tetany occurring, and these steps are also part of a grass first management system. Cool season grasses have lower magnesium levels than legumes and forbes. If you maintain a diverse pasture stand (grasses and legumes) you lower the chances of grass tetany. Managing soil pH can also help. Proper pH maximizes magnesium availability. It also helps to delay fertilizing until a little later in the spring when the grasses are better equipped to handle the boost from Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium additions. Last, keep cattle out of pastures and hay meadows in the spring when the grass is very succulent, young, and the ground is saturated. All these are good steps to fight grass tetany and they are also the steps you should take if you to maximize the long-term productivity of your forage resources.

Can Reseeding Help My Grass?

If your stand has less than 30% legume, you should consider seeding/reseeding a legume into the existing grasses. Introducing legumes into your grasses is an age old tool to save on Nitrogen fertilizer bills. In addition to the monetary gains the biodiversity and improved forage quality associated with these mixed species stands is reason enough to consider reseeding some grasslands. An additional up side to taking time to reseed in the spring is getting out and about your property. Knowing the land is fundamental to managing it effectively.

One thing you can try is dragging your pastures after broadcast seeding in a legume. This spreads the manure and seed. In addition, if you fed livestock over the winter on a particular pasture, consider dragging it to redistribute the manure and maybe reseed locations where winter feeding impacted the existing stand. Then manage pasture rotations to allow you to “fix” sacrifice areas and allow reseeded legumes time to establish.

Should I worry about compaction on my pastures?

Maybe this pasture was a little too wet to graze.
Maybe this pasture was a little too wet to graze.

If we are trying to reduce the number of days on feed and maximize days on grass, keeping cattle off pastures longer in the spring may seem counter intuitive but it is the right call. Compaction is the great destroyer of productivity. Compact soil limits infiltration of water, inhibits root growth and development and ultimately inhibits plants from reaching nutrients and water during the growing season. Prevent compaction in the spring by delaying turn-out on until soil moisture is at levels where hooves won’t cause compaction.  You know your pastures and their soils, and that some stay wetter longer in the spring. Manage these fields with caution, and allow them more time to dry before you include them in your rotation.

What can I do to minimize the loss of nutrients I apply in the spring?

Spring can be a wet and difficult time to manage agricultural lands. Typically there are a lot of things to do and often we are at the mercy of nature as to when we can get started. At times you have a set number of acres to fertilize and there may be deadlines on when equipment or fertilizers are available. In spite of all this, resist the urge to apply nutrients when you know it’s a bad idea. Applying nutrients poorly is worse than not applying them at all. If you apply too early or before a big storm, you have basically poured your fertilizer budget in the nearest river.

Think of managing fertility as a long-term relationship. What matters is doing the right things the right way. It’s more important to apply Phosphorus and Potassium correctly than it is to follow arbitrary dates for when you want to do things. Recognize your input limits and remember every dollar you spend needs to produce more forage. You’re in the business of converting sunlight to money, and the forages on your farm do most of the work. Provide them the tools they need to do their job well.

I’m turning the cattle out next week, what should I do first?

CowsonspringgrassTurn out is the equivalent of the rodeo on many farms. At first everything is groovy! Lush grass, new ground, more room, it’s a virtual wonderland for cattle. However, in short order any deficiencies in fencing become exposed and then, keeping livestock where they belong can be a challenge. So if your cattle are headed to the pasture, take some time to make sure your fences are ready for them.

An early season pasture walk is a great opportunity to study the land and spot potential fence issues before the rodeo and round up begins. As someone opposed to unnecessary hard work, if you have to drive in a few posts by hand, it’s easier to do this when the ground is soft like it is in the spring. This is also a good opportunity to identify areas to reseed and identify brush to cut, and scout new weeds. Some weeds make good forage and others are toxic. Every year new plant species are introduced into our grasslands. The weeds you are dealing with today may not be the weed you’re dealing with tomorrow. Get in front of the curve and get new weeds identified and act accordingly.

Remember, it’s hard to make grass first management decisions without seeing the grass first, so get out and walk your fences and fields. And enjoy the spring. You don’t need to fix everything at once. Just be committed to the process of making decisions based on what’s best for your forage resources.

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Michael Harman
Michael Harman
I am the head of the GIS Department and Assistant Professor of GIS at Northern Virginia Community College. I am a scientist. I love data, discovery, and problem solving. I am a bit of a water quality expert. My academic background is in the natural sciences. I have Ph.D. from West Virginia University where I studied phosphorus movement and modeling and agriculture. I have degrees in Applied Agricultural Science, Animal and Vet Science, Agronomy -Soil Science, Public Administration, and Agriculture. I am an experienced Agriculture and Natural Resources extension educator / county Agent and author of multiple articles and publications. I have served as a local resource to assist in the identification and resolution of any agricultural and natural resources issues. I have developed agricultural and natural resources related programming to support the people of the county, the state, and the nation. In my current position I train students in the basic and advanced use of Geographic Information Systems to solve problems, model “stuff” and identify patterns in data. In my spare time, I love to write for On Pasture!

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