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Manage pastures with high fertilizer prices

Commentary: Here are tips to manage soil fertility on pastures with high fertilizer prices.

March 16, 2022

3 Min Read
cows grazing in pasture
MANAGING PASTURES: It’s easier to manage both soil fertility for pastures and longevity of forages if you monitor soil fertility and apply fertilizer when necessary. Tom J. Bechman

Banking fertility is easier to do on pastures than hayfields. With good grazing management, most nutrients on pastures are returned to the soil for new plant growth.

Recently, Chris Teutsch of the University of Kentucky Research and Education Center released a short YouTube video with John Grove titled “10 Tips to Help Livestock Producers Weather High Fertilizer Prices.”

Here is my synopsis of his points, coupled with my own observations:

1. There are no silver bullets. Many products promise lots of things. Some allude to no fertilizer required! It’s possible to improve soil health with microbic life in the soil so some nutrients are more available, but it doesn’t happen overnight, and it isn’t a given. Maintain good living cover, provide adequate rest between grazing events and honor appropriate stop grazing heights.

2. Take soil samples in pastures. A soil test provides a baseline. If you don’t know where your soils are presently, it’s harder to figure out which direction to go.

3. Add lime first. The priority from your soil test is pH. Lime is usually the best money spent because if the pH is off, critical macronutrients like phosphorus won’t be as available. If the pH is below 5.8, I recommend correcting pH first and retesting after at least six months.

4. Understand when not to apply P and K. Don’t apply phosphorus or potassium if tests are in the medium range. You can maintain sufficient levels for a long time if you’re only grazing. If you’re taking hay off, levels will decline accordingly. If P and K are below the medium test range, additional nutrients are beneficial for nutrition and yield with pastures and hay.

5. Rotate pastures. The more livestock are rotated and managed to get even distribution of manure and urine across the entire pasture, the better redistribution of nutrients back into the soil will be.

6. Account for nutrients in hay. There are lots of nutrients in good quality hay. If you feed hay where nutrients are needed, you can save on replacement nutrients. If you’re buying hay, you’re not only buying feed but you’re also buying nutrients for the farm. Take advantage of them.

7. Add legumes. Legumes add digestible protein and nutrients. Mixed with grasses, they provide valuable nitrogen that boosts both yield and overall quality. Adding legumes is usually the second-best dollar spent after lime.

8. Add clover. Frost-seeding is one of the least expensive ways to enhance a stand of legumes. You simply broadcast legume seed onto the soil’s surface during late winter months.

9. Manage nitrogen applications. Nitrogen applications are sometimes better used for secondary cuttings to boost yield and quality, and/or for stockpiled forage for fall and winter grazing. Apply nitrogen when it can be used most efficiently. If you have high amounts of legumes, you may not need much or any additional nitrogen.

10. Monitor hayfields closely. When nutrients fall into the low category, forage yield and quality suffer. There can be a shift to plants more adaptable to low levels of nutrients. Fields used only for hay should be treated like regular crop fields. Fertilize to maintain at least a moderate fertility level.

Shelton is an agronomist and soil management specialist, retired from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

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