By Dan Undersander
One of the most underutilized forage sources in the Midwest is pasture. It is often unmanaged generating less than half the forage it is capable of producing. Some of our measurements on unmanaged pasture have indicated an annual forage production of less than one ton per acre while managed pasture can easily yield four or more tons per acre. Increasing the forage from pasture can be a good way to meet forage needs when farms are short of forage.
Most people think of reseeding when considering increasing pasture yield, but I would put this fourth on a list of return to investment (after weed control, fertilization and allotting/resting pastures during season). The exception would be to overseed areas that died during the drought last summer.
Weeds need not be controlled unless the thistle or brush is so thick that the grass will not grow or cattle will not graze. If so, an application of brush or broadleaf weed killer will kill or reduce the weed growth and let the grass come through. Check the herbicide label for proper time of application, rate and any restrictions on grazing after application.
Be sure to fertilize
The largest increase in pasture yield will be from fertilization. Grasses and clovers need nutrients to grow. The soil has limited ability to supply these and yield can be greatly increased by nutrient additions. The best is to soil test and fertilize according. (Be sure to specify that the crop to be grown is a grass or legume/grass pasture when submitting the soil sample; the analysis will be the same but fertilizer recommendations will be different than for alfalfa-corn-soybeans.)
Soil tests will indicate whether or not phosphorus and potassium are needed – some soils will be deficient and others not. Some or all of these nutrients may be supplied by manure.
All pastures will need nitrogen and sulfur for maximum yield. Consider that pasture forage contains 3% to 4% nitrogen. Thus every ton of forage from pastures requires 60 to 80 pounds of nitrogen. We should be planning for 2 tons per acre forage from the first spring growth (through mid-June). Thus, 120 to 160 pounds per acre nitrogen is needed. Slightly over half of this can come from soil residual, decomposing manure, etc. but 60 pounds per acre nitrogen fertilizer should be applied to maximize pasture forage yield. It can be applied any time after the pasture starts to green up and should show signs of yield enhancement within a week of application if rain has occurred to wash the nitrogen into the soil.
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