How to Handle Pastures and Hay Fields Before Winter

Stressed-out pastures and hayland may need attention.

Published on: Nov 6, 2007

Pastures were greening up on the drive to Springville in Lawrence County last week. Experts and more than 40 cattle producers gathered to discuss both how to get cattle through winter economically, and how to manage pastures that were drawn down by this year's drought, especially in southern Indiana. The same meeting was repeated later in the day at the Little York Stockyards.

Even though they're greening now, pastures took a big hit this summer, says Keith Johnson, Purdue University Extension forage specialist. He recommends thinking through your options for bringing these pastures back into condition for next season now, while you have more time to plan and react.

"The first step is to soil test," he emphasizes. "If you haven't done a good job of testing pastures regularly, this is the time to do it. We generally like to see fields sampled every three years. Sample these pasture and hay fields by soil type. Then apply lime and nutrients as recommended."

There are two reasons to do it now rather than wait until spring, then decide you ought to pull soil tests to see what nutrients are possibly short, Johnson says. First, soil tests pulled in summer and fall tend to be more accurate at estimating potassium levels than those pulled in the spring, he notes.

Second, if you have a particular problem, say low pH, you can't wait until March, apply lime one day and then successfully reseed or over-seed the next," he says. "The lime needs time to work and raise pH levels. Many forage plants, especially alfalfa and some other legumes, need solid pH levels to get established and grow properly."

One positive in the fact that pastures may now be drawn down much lower than you like to see them heading into winter, in terms of grazing height, is that it will provide a good opportunity for over-seeding next spring, he notes. Seeding into existing stands usually works best if the forage on the field already is two inches tall or less. Otherwise, seed may get caught up in the forage, germinate and then die when the roots can't find soil and moisture, Johnson notes. Ideally, when you're not concerned about adding more seed the next spring, you should shoot for four inches of forage left when you pull cattle off and send them elsewhere, Johnson explains. Don't attempt to over-seed alfalfa into an existing alfalfa stand.

Whether to cut hay off pastures or hayfields where regrowth is now happening, once some rain finally came, is a question asked frequently right now, Johnson says. In normal years, few would even consider cutting forage this late vs. letting the field prepare itself for winter. But with so many people statewide desperate for hay and high hay prices, it's a question worth an answer.

"If you cut hay now, you're very much a risk taker in terms of maintaining the stand for next year," Johnson says. If you're going to do it, select older stands that don't have much life left anyway, and cut stubble fairly high, he suggests. That will allow stems to poke up above the ice should ice cover the field at some point during the winter, and let the crop breathe.

A better option, Johnson says, might be letting fields grow now, then grazing them after the forage goes dormant for the winter. With decent weather conditions, there is still an opportunity to get some growth during the next few weeks, he notes. Then there would be enough forage for grazing, after low temperatures finally send plants into dormancy. That scenario would play out much better for plant health, he says.