2017-12-07 / Opinions

Winter pasture management

Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent

As we approach the winter months it is important that our cattle producers take proper measures to ensure pasture health: after all, our forages are the basis for good beef nutrition. Pasture health management considers fertility, grazing management, and weed management.

Healthy pastures need proper fertility management to make the most of forage production and optimize animal health. During winter the weather gets colder, warm season pasture grasses and legumes begin to go into dormancy and use little of the nutrients found in the soil, so you would think that pasture fertilization is not normally a concern. However, this is a fantastic time to apply phosphorus and potassium, which are nutrients that tie up tightly to soil particles and take a longer time to become available to the plant as compared to nitrogen. During the winter months the rain will help to move broadcasted nutrients into the soil so they will be available for next spring. Applications of lime for those with low pH problems are also suggested at this time of the year for the same reasons.

You are probably wondering about nitrogen application. A winter application for nitrogen is not recommended because nitrogen is very mobile and does not tie up well to soil particles and can move easily into the groundwater and cause contamination. It has to be stressed that if there is potential for surface water runoff such as with hillside or severely compacted pastures broadcast applications of any nutrient have the potential for causing surface water contamination, so extreme care must be taken to avoid this phenomenon. It cannot be stressed enough that before fertilizer applications are made pull a soil sample to determine how much of a particular nutrient needed.

In addition to fertility our producers have to manage grazing pressure on their pastures. While our warm season grasses are dormant during the winter, winter annuals and tall fescue thrive during this time. However, over-grazing these grasses will nuke these plantings. Pastures should never be grazed below four inches in height. Excessive grazing below this point will lead to root damage and opens plants up to winter damage. Additionally, over grazing means increased foot traffic: this leads to compacted soils, reduced plant vigor, and decreased water infiltration. Establishing a rotational grazing program, having sufficient hay stores, and reducing stocking rates can significantly reduce the likelihood of overgrazing in pastures and should be a part of a cattleman’s best management practices.

Finally, weed identification and control is critical for pasture management. While not all “weeds” are harmful to cattle, knowing those that are unsafe as well as those that cattle just will not eat is important for pasture maintenance. Plants that cattle will not eat, like bitter sneezeweed, should be controlled if not eradicated from pastures: these plants utilize nutrients that would otherwise be used by forage grasses. Obviously, harmful plants need to be eradicated because they cause injury to cattle. Prevention of establishment is the best means of control. While it is impossible to prevent weed seeds from reaching pastures, it is possible to reduce its chances of establishment by preventing bare ground. Bare ground allows sunlight to reach the seed and promotes germination. Maintaining healthy stands of grass through grazing management can aid in preventing ground-sun exposure. This is especially true for drought years where overgrazing can easily occur.

Proper pasture care and maintenance can go a long way towards maximizing profit for cattle producers. By implementing the appropriate management practices at the right time producers can ensure sufficient nutrition for cattle and minimize the time and money spent on correcting issues brought about by inadequate management practices. The University of Georgia has a plethora of information on forage management. We encourage producers to make use of us as a resource to aid in beef production. So give your local County Agent a call and set up a time to make use of this resource.

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