The well-being of Indiana forage crops this year will depend on whether producers alleviate some of the stresses caused by past management concerns, says Keith Johnson, Purdue Extension forage specialist.

“The 2010 crop year was stressful to forages because the early spring rains didn’t allow producers to get the harvested hay crop out of the field as early as they would have liked and the quality was less than desirable,” Johnson says. “Following that was a very long, dry period. As time went on, producers were stressing pasture crops they did have and overgrazing occurred.”

Regardless of weather, forage growers need to take the time to identify the stresses on their hay and pasture crops season to season so they can eliminate some or all of those issues in the best interest of the existing plants.

First and foremost, Johnson says they need to have their soils tested for pH, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, cation exchange capacity and organic matter. A basic test should cover all of these measurements. Any that come back showing critical levels or less should be given immediate attention – especially pH.

“Different crops have a different pH level at which they grow best,” says Johnson. “The cool-season grasses really ought to be grown in a soil with a pH of 6.2-7. Most of the legumes we grow, such as alfalfa, need a pH closer to 7.”

Having the proper soil pH ensures nitrogen fixation in legumes and affects the availability of nutrients. A pH that is off ultimately could alter the forage composition, and producers could see less desirable forages growing in their fields.

Growers also need to evaluate their forage stands. They should look at what is in a pasture and determine whether it’s more forages or weeds. If a pasture has been overgrazed and an abnormally large amount of soil is showing, overseeding might be an option. Also look for signs of insects and diseases.

“It’s the dynamics of growing crops that are important,” says Johnson. “Do a good job of scouting. Look at the well-being of the crop as it grows. Understand why the crop might not meet your objective as it grows. Be diagnostic about things and take care of the issues in some fashion so the crop can be as productive as possible.”

For farmers unsure of the best process for taking fields or pastures from evaluation to overhaul, Johnson recommends following the Procedural Order for Pasture Renovation:

  1. Assess the need for pasture improvement.
  2. Soil test and apply amendments.
  3. Control perennial broadleaf weeds.
  4. Overseed before dormancy breaks.
  5. Reduce competition to young seedlings by grazing established forages or by hay harvest.

In response to the forage issues of 2010 and the effects of short and low-quality forages on livestock, Johnson and Purdue Extension beef specialist Ron Lemenager hosted a free webinar that is archived and accessible to anyone at http://www.thebeefcenter.com.