If you’re thinking you might want to spend some time and or money on your soil fertility, start with a soil test. That used to be right up there with “diet and exercise” and “floss daily” in terms of fun. But it doesn’t have to be as we pointed out in “Taking the Drudgery Out of Soil Testing.”
Now that you’ve got your soil test results, take a look at your soil’s phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). Drawdown of P and K on pasture is a very long and slow process unless you’re cutting forage for hay or haylage. If your soil test shows those two minerals below the optimum range for legumes, then, and only then, you should add those two nutrients. P and K are especially important if you are harvesting and removing forage. If you aren’t harvesting forages, and possibly if the pasture is not one you’d be able to run over with machinery, try to provide supplemental feed on that pasture. That can provide the net gain of nutrients your pasture is seeking.
One of the best tools you have for spreading nutrients in pasture is your herd. Here are some tips to help them do their best:
1. Provide portable water troughs in each paddock. Avoid placing the trough in the same place each time. Using 50’ or so of flexible hose on the end of the trough to help shift it to a new spot.
2. Fence major paddocks along landforms, such as bottomland pasture, steep hillside pasture, and ridgeline pasture. This way, you won’t have the herd congregating at the top of the hill, for example. This can also be done to aid mechanical harvest.
3. Avoid using permanent shade, where possible.
4. Take care not to overfeed P in the total feed ration. Is that mineral block containing P really needed?
5. Supplement dairy pastures with a partial TMR.* DO NOT do the reverse (i.e. supplement TMR feeding with pasture forage). There may be milk production reasons to use pasture as a supplement to a TMR, but then you are fishing and cutting bait at the same time, you’re not really getting the true advantage of either.
6. Rotate winter hay feeding areas to spread the nutrients around. Feeding the herd on frozen ground can provide additional nutrients and organic matter in the excess feed.
7. Most of all, use shorter grazing periods. The more frequently the herd is moved, the more even the spread of manure. This can mean more management, but it can also mean better production.
8. If you’re managing dairy herds, giving them most of their day’s pasture in the morning and then moving them in the afternoon. When dairy herds were given 85% of their day’s pasture before 1 pm, and then the final 15% was introduced in the early afternoon, they were inspired to graze from the high sugar forage when they may otherwise have been loafing. This lead to a 5% boost in milk production, which cost the farmer nothing more than a break wire.
*TMR – total mixed ration, various stored feedstuffs are mixed together and fed to dairy cows.