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Preparing for grazing season

By Rick Thomason

Spring is here and pastures will begin to grow quickly over the next few weeks. Many producer meetings, articles and websites suggest practices to make pastures more productive with less effort, but University of Tennessee Extension forage specialist Gary Bates says these sources can over-complicate what should be a simple process of preparing for the grazing season.

“How do you know what is most important? Which source are you supposed to believe? These and many other questions can overwhelm beef producers, but forage recommendations and the steps to follow do not have to be difficult,” says the expert. “Forage production is relatively straightforward, with several simple things you should look at over the next few months to become very productive and efficient,” continues Bates. His steps for spring forage prep are below:

Step 1 – Conduct a soil sample to determine soil fertility status. Sometimes the simplest step is the one overlooked the most. Producers need to determine if soil pH is adequate, and if the soil has the appropriate level of phosphate and potash to support adequate forage growth. Producers don’t have to soil sample every year, but should try to sample at least every third year to follow fertility level. We recommend soil testing in the fall, however, many producers wait until spring to get this done. Fertilize and lime according to the test results.

Step 2 – Evaluate the weed pressure in fields. There is still time to control cool-season weeds such as buttercup, plantains and musk thistle. Bates suggests producers walk across their fields and see if the weed pressure is heavy enough to warrant herbicide application. The Extension office in your county can provide specific herbicide recommendations, which will depend on the weeds species present.

Step 3 – Evaluate tall fescue. The next step is to evaluate whether the tall fescue is thick enough, or if producers need to increase their plant population. There is no shortcut for this. When plants are about six inches tall, walk across the field and estimate what  percentage of the ground is covered with tall fescue leaves. The ultimate goal is to capture 100 percent of the sunlight. If the level is 70 percent or more, there are enough plants. If it is between 40 and 70 percent, producers can graze or clip close in September and drill more seed. If less than 40, it is better to kill the entire stand and totally replant in the fall.

Step 4 – Use other species in addition to tall fescue. Bates warns against depending on tall fescue alone for forage production. Several other species should be added to forage programs to add quality and lengthen the grazing season. Producers should consistently be trying to add red and white clover to every acre of forage. Bates also suggests adding some species of warm-season forage as well, to provide grazing during the hotter summer months when tall fescue growth slows or stops.

Step 5- Improve grazing management. “If producers are going to the trouble of growing the forage, then use it efficiently,” says the UT forage expert. Put up some temporary fences to force cattle to eat all of the forage in an area before moving them. This will also allow producers the flexibility to move cattle before they overgraze the pasture. Just start somewhere. It may be simply dividing one field in half. Even the longest of journeys begins with a single step.

Bates says, “Nothing is very complicated about this process. The goal is to have a long grazing season with minimal inputs. The hard part is prioritizing these recommendations and getting them done.”