February is a great month to prepare for the grazing season. Here’s a list of many things to consider.
Pasture care and renovation: In areas with warmer climates, February is a good time to put down lime and maybe some fertilizer. If you haven’t sent off a soil sample, do it now! The pH should be in the 6.5 to 7.0 range. This will help both legumes and grasses utilize nutrients efficiently. Late winter is early enough in the growing year to allow lime to make changes in pH before most of the growing season.
Fertilizer, especially P and K, will help pasture plants recover and strengthen root systems. Limited amount of nitrogen may assist with early tillering and some recovery. However, over fertilization with nitrogen may not help plants. Animal manures especially poultry litter are good fertilizer sources. However, poultry litter can be hard to obtain because of high demand. Line-up poultry litter or other manures early before the spring demand for fertilizer hits.
Make sure that litter that is used for fertilizer does not contain dead birds. If it does contain bird carcasses, producers need to scan the fields and remove any dead birds that are present before cattle graze the pasture. There have been several reports of cattle killed by botulism from dead poultry associated with litter fertilization. It is important to follow nutrient management plans and adhere to set backs from water ways when using animal manures.
For frost seeding of clovers, broadcast 4 to 6 lbs of red clover seed or 1 to 2 lbs of ladino clover seed per acre. Either lightly drag the pasture or allow cattle to tread in the seed. The freezing and thawing action of the ground will also allow for good seed contact with these clovers. This is an extremely effective method of increasing clover in grass pastures. For more information about frost seeding see the VCE publication “No-Till Seeding of Forage Grasses and Legumes” on-line at http://www.ext.vt.edu/pubs/forage/418-007/418-007.pdf.
February is too early to no-till seed grasses, but most no-till seeding should be done in March (or early April). Several soil conservation districts and farmers co-ops rent no-till seeders for pastures renovation. Demand on this equipment will be high, so producers need to sign-up for equipment as soon as possible. Also, producers should make sure they understand how to properly use the equipment in order to place seed at the proper depth.
Recommended mixtures for overseeding existing pastures are orchardgrass (6–10 lbs/acre) + red clover (4-6 lbs./acre) OR fescue (5-10 lbs./acre) + red clover (4-6 lbs./acre) + ladino clover (1-2 lbs./acre).
Grazing Control: Cattle should only be left on a pasture for one week before moving to the next pasture. In addition, cows should only consume about ½ of the available grass. It will be important to only allow cows to graze down to a minimum of 3 inches in early spring. By June, pastures should only be grazed down to 4 to 6 inches. The shorter height in early spring will encourage development of frost seeded or no-till planted forages. Increased grazing heights in the summer will improve regrowth and stand vigor.
A simple method for controlled grazing is to use temporary fence and a solar or battery powered charger. Another method is to use one strand of 12 gauge high tensile fence placed 36 to 40 inches above the ground on T-posts fitted with plastic insulators. The high tensile method is “semi-permanent” so one would create all the paddocks needed for the grazing season in the spring. The advantage is it does not have to be moved every time cattle need to be rotated; however, the T-posts can easily be moved if the fence is not exactly in the right place. The semi-permanent option is good for part-time producers and locations with heavy deer traffic.
Water: Many operations suffer from lack of drinking water for cattle during the late summer and fall. Late winter is the time to make improvements to the watering systems. Wells, spring developments, ponds, and temporary storage are all considerations for watering systems. Wells are the most expensive, but most reliable. Spring developments and ponds can supply considerable water even with limited flow.
With proper development and storage, a water flow of 1 gallon per minute can provide sufficient water for 50 head of cattle. A ram pump can also be used to move water from streams or ponds to a storage tank for redistribution.
Planning ahead for pasture renovation, grazing strategies, and water supply will save many headaches this spring and summer.