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Rejuvenating stressed pastures and hayfields

“Pastures and hay fields often seeded on land with more cropping limitations were stressed in many parts of Alberta last year, even late the previous year, and now again this spring,” says Grant Lastiwka, forage extension specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.
Lastiwka offers these tips to make those pastures and hayfields more productive:
Plan to start grazing later
“Planning for a later start date for the grazing season is known to be the most cost effective rejuvenation plan you can have,” he says.
“This means longer feeding at a time when we may not have the feed to do so, and cattle want to be out on new green grass. It is challenging but I see no other sound alternative other than winter annuals seeded last fall, stockpiled forage, or corn-swath grazing held back for spring use.”
Access more acres for seeding annuals for hay or silage use
Lastiwka says that looking for pasture elsewhere does provide good opportunities if it can be found.
“Trucking costs when amortized over the grazing period can add significant costs to this option. However, this option may work for those producers who own their own truck, can find a close enough pasture or get a back haul.”
He adds that existing pastures that come up for rent – if not taken by local neighbors – could be overgrazed, overpricing for what you get and water quality/availability needs to be considered.
“Producers should arrange for a rental agreement that allows for a low stocking rate or using some rotational grazing options. You may also be able to plan to keep animals in sacrifice areas that were less desirable – so not grazed last year to get more grazing days this year. Providing water if not present in these unfavourable areas could be a good investment for even a week or more to rest those other highly desirable overgrazed areas.”
Fertilize early or just before a significant rain event
“Doing so with blends on forage stands will speed up recovery and growth,” explains Lastiwka.
Soil mineralization continues briefly after grass plants have gone dormant due to lack of moisture.
“Meaning, you may have a small fertility store for plant compensatory growth, if they are not overgrazed, in forage stands for this year that are already there. Letting overgrazed pasture grasses grow in spring is crucial so their roots can get down to this nutrient pool and recover some vigor. Waiting after a significant rain and heat to jump start uniform plant growth across the majority of a pasture stand is crucial.”
Lastiwka says that fertilizer prices this spring have increased but high stored forage prices make fertilization of hay or pasture for 2019 – 2020 an option that is generally profitable.
“This is the case for vigorous forage stands. Overgrazed pastures or low nitrogen grass hay stands use fertility for much needed root growth first so the delay yield response could carry to the following year.”
He adds that conducting a soil test is the most effective use of those fertilizer dollars. “Unless we chose to fertilize late in spring, we are too late to get this analysis back in time for the most effective early fertilizer application. If you decide to fertilize without soil testing use some nitrogen (N), and consider using phosphorus (P) and possibly sulphur (S). Sulphur needs are especially true on gray wooded soils. We are now finding S is needed on some black soils or on stands of older legumes on brown soil areas.”
“Good grass pastures with good moisture may give up to 10 to 20 plus pounds of forage dry matter per lb. of N fertilizer applied. Grass hay land is more likely be 20 lb. of forage dry matter per pound of N. This may be less if another nutrient is deficient. That is why I recommend a blend. After good management for plant and soil health, soil N supply should be the key focus. Cost to fertilize hay will vary based on amounts of N, P, potassium (K), or S applied. It will still be cost effective or break-even at worst, considering the present and likely this fall’s hay, greenfeed, silage prices.”
“In pastures, a grazing animal returns about 80% of the N consumed in urine and manure,” he explains. “Of this after losses to the air of ammonia (NH3), about 50% to 60% of the N is actually available for the plants to reuse. Eighty to 90% of the P, K and S in the manure and urine will return to the soil. Through good grazing management, ‘fertilizer’ will spread around the pasture and not just in the cattle’s ‘lounging’ areas.”
Start looking now at feeding options for the next 365 days
“A grazing day can be worth one-half to two-thirds the price of a winter feeding day,” says Lastiwka.
“Plan for grazing and stored feed alternatives as a way to address this summer’s needs and next year’s winter feed bill. Stockpile forages if through strategic management and moisture, pasture is in excess. Consider swath grazing, corn, annuals or cocktails for late spring, fall or next spring’s use. As well, post-harvest grazing grain field aftermath, and straw bale grazing with supplement are some more options. Talk to neighbors early about straw purchases, grazing after combining or even later seeding of cocktail cover crops on their low profitability grain land acres.”
Lastiwka says that another consideration is water pipelines. “Don’t rule them out even for temporary use. They can pay for themselves if access distance gives better use to more than one quarter of land or grazing days gained are enough. Plus, portable fencing is an amazing tool when used correctly with the proper equipment and low stress cattle handling when you don’t have permanent fencing. If in doubt, get some advice on setting it up right. Simple things easily get overlooked that can be keys to electric fencing being an amazing technology to use.”
“After all,” he adds, “winter feeding has to be done but source and use this high cost feed and grazing resource cost to keep your beef herd cost competitive. These varying approaches to getting more forage will give us costs that are more in line with the returns we are seeing in the beef business.”
Source : Alberta Agriculture