Mud is the price of feeding cattle outside over winter, especially the winter of 2018/2019. So what can be done to renovate or rehabilitate damaged grass pastures?
First, there is no easy or quick fix. The damaged pastures are going to need time out of production and some inputs. Let’s take a look at some things you can do to help rehabilitate your pasture grass base.
Rest. I would have to put this at the top of any list. Without time off, the pasture will never be much more than mud and weeds. Ideally, this rest would extend beyond the rehabilitation period to future management. If these pastures have to go back into rotation, make it a priority to implement rotational grazing with extended rest periods. Longer rest periods allow the roots to recover as well as the tops.
Feeding somewhere else. Getting to state the obvious is a perk of old age, and feeding somewhere else is the pinnacle of obvious. However, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is a symptom of insanity by some. Other options?
Nitrogen. The strongest stimulant for grass growth is nitrogen. While legumes do supply nitrogen, for this problem we need to pull out the big guns and use fertilizer N for quickest results. Spring N will stimulate grass plants that are still vigorous and growing and will produce more yield per pound of N than at any other time, generally.
Assessment. Determine whether you have enough grass to warrant the N. Weeds are also stimulated by spring N, and we don’t need more of those. Fall applied N will stimulate cool season grasses to initiate new tillers that will emerge next spring. The timing window for N application to stimulate tillering is wider and later than the optimum window for stockpiling fescue. October and November applications will be effective.
Planting something. Once the cattle have been removed, you have the opportunity to smooth up the area if needed and seed. The options include red and white clover, a summer annual or even an aggressive establishing cool season grass if done early. Clover will easily germinate and grow when broadcast onto bare soil given just a little rain or packing. The taproots can help loosen the soil as well.
My choice of the ryegrasses would be perennial ryegrass and not annual. Perennial is still a temporary fix but has a chance of lasting well into the season and maybe more. Annual ryegrass will often go to seed and die by mid-summer, unless an Italian type is used.
Summer annuals. Species such as crabgrass, sorghum-sudan, sudangrass and pearl millet can provide high yields and make good use of the residual N, P and K from the cattle. Plant these when the soils are warmer and the chance of frost has passed.
All the options above (clover, ryegrass or warm season annuals) are just temporary solutions, of course. Their purpose is to provide some pasture while bridging to the fall seeding window when seeding of more permanent cool season grasses are more successful.
There are as many ways to rehabilitate our permanent pastures as there are farms. Adding heavy use areas, unrolling hay across more area, and even bale grazing can help. But rest, nitrogen, feeding elsewhere and replanting are some of your most powerful tools for the job of bringing back the permanence in your pastures.
~ Dr. Jimmy Henning, excerpt of article in Farmers Pride