Regardless of discipline, success in agriculture often starts from the ground up. In cattle and forage production, improved pasture management can result in higher quality forages, better fed livestock, and greater earnings in the long run.

Bob Hendershot, a retired state grassland conservationist with the NRCS in Ohio, explains that a healthy pasture sets a chain reaction of benefits in action, such as improving the quality of soil, water, air, plants, animals, and reducing energy requirements.

“Healthy soils can grow healthy plants that can allow animals to grow quicker, stronger, and healthier, which will reduce the cost of production,” Hendershot says in a recent Ohio Beef Cattle Letter.

Hendershot notes the importance of monitoring and measuring progress within your pastures. Specifically, he states that good managers know how to measure the things that they can change and that will have a positive impact on their production system. Weekly growth rate, production, plant composition, carrying capacity, stocking rate, and soil fertility were all listed as things to take note of in order to better understand your pasture’s needs and capabilities.

“The 4Rs of soil fertility and the effect on water quality should be familiar to all of us. The Right Source, Right Rate, Right Time, and Right Placement of fertilizer are not just cropland issues,” Hendershot begins.

Because water quality is at the forefront of hot topics in agriculture right now, Hendershot urges producers to take a closer look at their fertilization practices for pastures and hayfields. Good grazing management helps to distribute manure throughout the landscape rather than having pockets of nutrient concentration, which are often found when we don’t take control of animal movement. Distributing water, mineral, and shade in different places also discourages localized areas of manure distribution.

By limiting grazing duration, manure distribution is more even and addresses both “Right Time” and “Right Placement.”

“Fertile soils grow more grass and better livestock feed than soils with low or unbalanced soil fertility,” Hendershot says. “Just because the grass is growing does not mean that it is providing high quality and balanced nutrition to the grazing animal.”

Hendershot encourages producers to have soil fertility tests done to better measure how their plants interact with the soil. Using a current soil test, producers can supplement the needed nutrients with commercial fertilizer, compost, or additional manure to boost both plant and animal production, he adds. Nutrients can also be relocated through harvesting plants to be fed at a different location.

“One ton of dry forage contains the same amount of phosphorus as 35 bushels of shelled corn or 16 bushels of soybeans. Harvesting forages is an excellent way to lower very high levels of soil phosphorus from fields that are sensitive to runoff,” Hendershot says.

Being conscious of the environment also means applying plant nutrients precisely and at the right times. Hendershot explains that forages need the most help in late summer and early fall because they are actively growing new roots and storing energy for the winter and following spring. That said, spring applications are less effective at helping with root mass growth; however, it does encourage stem elongation and seed production.

“If the soil test levels are low, applying small amounts of nutrients several times during the growing season is a good way to enhance forage production and animal performance,” Hendershot says.

Hendershot closes his discussion talking about two specific limiting nutrients in Ohio pasture fields – calcium and phosphorus. To get around this, lime is frequently used to raise soil pH and is extremely helpful in preventing weeds, improving nutrient absorption, enhancing legume nitrogen fixation, encouraging deeper and greater root development, and improving the palatability of forages.

Lauren Peterson

Lauren Peterson served as the 2017 Hay & Forage Grower summer editorial intern. She is from Wyanet, Ill., and currently attends Kansas State University where she is pursuing a degree in agricultural communications and journalism. While at school, Lauren works at the KSU dairy farm and is an active member of the Horseman’s Association.