Many older perennial pastures could benefit from renovation. While we think of these as “permanent pastures,” we must realize perennial pastures evolve away from what was originally planted as they age. Sometimes they evolve into a more desirable mix that is highly productive and adapted to the site in question. Other times they turn into an undesirable population of plants that is not as productive or nutritious as it once was.
Due to high hay and feed costs coupled with high cattle prices, we are seeing greater interest in grazed forage management. It may be appropriate to renovate old pastures, especially if they have an undesirable mix of plants or are clearly less productive than they once were. But how do you decide if you need to renovate?
To make good decisions, you must objectively assess your pastures. As you plan for future grazing activities, evaluate the plant population, soil fertility, and general indicators of pasture condition. In some cases, only a partial renovation will be needed. In others, total renovation will be called for.
Evaluate the botanical composition. The most practical way to do this is to use a technique called “step-point.” Walk a random path around the pasture and write down the species at the tip of your boot after taking a predetermined number of steps. Record each “hit” on a clipboard using a hatch mark system, and continue the process until you cover the whole pasture, gathering at least 100 hits.
Once you have totaled up the hits for each species, calculate the percentage of each. The goal is to have a high percentage of desirable plants, a low percentage of bare ground, and very few noxious weeds. You can find a link to a guide and worksheet at go.ncsu.edu/amazinggrazingresources.
Of course, to do this you need to know how to identify major plants, both desirable and undesirable. You may not know many of the minor species, but as long as you can identify them as something you do or don’t want in the pasture, you can move on. If you have a dominant weed you don’t want but can’t identify, take some samples to someone who can.
It can be sobering to walk the pasture and realize you don’t know the plants as well as you thought. Use the opportunity to identify new plants and learn the ones you already know in more detail. Plant identification apps can be quite useful for this. These apps might not always get the species correct on the first attempt, but they will usually get you close. Don’t overlook the second or third species the app suggests because it might actually be the plant you have.
If you have a trusted adviser such as your extension agent, conservationist, private industry consultant, or a fellow producer, they can also help if you invite them for a pasture walk.
Score pasture condition. As you walk the pasture to determine plant population, make notes about characteristics important to overall pasture condition, including the evidence of erosion, presence of bare ground, grazing intensity, grazing distribution, and heavy-use zones. These will be important when you plan a pasture renovation.
I find the USDA-NRCS Pasture Condition Scoring System to be useful in assessing pasture. This simple checklist-style approach walks you through the various aspects that add or detract from pasture condition and boils it down to a score you can work on improving.
The botanical composition information you gather from the step-point analysis will be important in scoring plant diversity, the percentage desirable plants, and the presence or absence of legumes. The observations you made about bare area, erosion, and grazing patterns will also come in handy, and the guide will help you understand and evaluate these factors in your pastures.
Check soil fertility. Evaluating soil fertility is another critical step in assessing pastures. Pull soil samples at least every three years. If you are contemplating pasture renovation, it is critical to soil test so major nutrients and lime can be applied economically. Make sure to follow your state guidelines for obtaining soil samples and submitting them to a lab for analysis.
In addition to traditional soil testing, walk the pasture with a shovel and make observations about soil health, such as compaction, root structure, color, and the presence of biological activity.
Be strategic. Once you have summarized botanical composition, determined pasture condition score, and received your soil test report, you can decide how you will approach renovation. If a pasture has a high percentage of desirable plants, then it may be best to do a partial renovation by improving soil fertility, spraying for undesirable weeds, and/or resting forage longer after grazing. Frost seeding clover is a practical alternative for these pastures that still have a good grass population.
If a pasture has a low level of desirable plants (less than 50% of total hits), a lot of bare ground, or some other serious problem with pasture condition, then a complete renovation might be in order. This would involve using glyphosate or tillage to kill the existing stand and starting over with a new planting.
In this case, take advantage of advances in perennial forages. Plants like novel endophyte tall fescues and native warm-season grasses can provide great benefits to your farm. Some shy away from these alternative species because of the cost of the seed, but remember that if the pasture needs to be fully renovated, the costs incurred far overshadow the cost of seed.
In other words, if you go to the expense of renovating, don’t plant toxic tall fescue or other poor-quality seed. Plant something with added value. Pay attention to detail as you proceed with the renovation. The outcome can be rewarding, especially if you try something new.
If you raise livestock on pasture, learn to identify plants, evaluate plant populations, and score pasture condition. Grazing will remain the most economical source of nutrients for livestock, and taking action to improve what you have will pay big returns.
This article appeared in the January 2024 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on pages 8-9.
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