Optimize Forage Quality

February 8, 2011 07:53 AM

With rising feed costs, it’s more important than ever to maximize grazing and improve forage quality to provide optimal nutrition for cattle.

Typically, spring, summer and early fall are when cattle are turned out onto pastures, but some producers manage to keep their cattle grazing year-round.

The more you can extend grazing and reduce the need for feed supplementation, the lower your feed costs will be. For some, there’s a need to harvest forages to sell or feed as hay. Either situation requires a focus on forage quality.

Factors that impact quality. If you are grazing, begin by taking into account the type of animals going on those pastures, says University of Kentucky forage specialist Garry Lacefield. "You need to know the type of animal, its production and/or reproduction stage and nutrition expectations," he says.

From there, try to match the pasture growth with the animal’s needs to maximize grazing.

In addition, if you’re harvesting forages, you want to optimize the quality in each bale. "It’s not how much you bale, but how much animal product you can produce with that bale," Lacefield says.
"A plant’s stage of maturity is very important to quality," he adds. "As yield goes up, quality goes down, so producers want to graze or harvest just before seeding at the boot stage. On a legume, we go into that late bud stage."

Iowa State University agronomist Steve Barnhart says that some of the most practical ways to boost pasture production, and subsequently forage quality, are fertilization, overseeding and improved grazing management.

With fertilization, pastures will respond well when nutrients are applied at appropriate rates. And, Barnhart says, fertilization of grass pastures can be done at economical costs: "Grass-based pastures generally respond very efficiently to the first 40 lb. to 50 lb. per acre of nitrogen." Yield responses to phosphorus and potassium, however, are not dramatic or consistent.

That’s where soil testing comes into play. It’s important to know those numbers when determining how much or what type of fertilizer to apply. 

Grazing management. The quantity and quality of pasture growth vary over time. "Periodic adjustments in stocking rate or use of cross-fencing to alter the type and/or amount of available forage can greatly affect animal performance and pasture species composition," Lacefield says.

In addition, Lacefield says, knowing the advantages and disadvantages of different grazing methods allows the use of various approaches to reach your objectives.

For example, Barnhart points out, to improve yields and potentially quality, forage plants need some level of rest and recovery following grazing.

This can be done through rotational grazing. "By dividing an existing pasture into three to five smaller paddocks and using thoughtful rotation and rest, one can increase productivity by 10% to 15%," Barnhart says. "Some of this increase will be evident within a few months, but realistically, it will take two to three years to reach its full benefit."

By instituting proper grazing management, Lacefield says, you allow the cattle to use more of what the plants produce, access it at a higher-quality stage and graze it more days of the year.

Consider Frost Seeding or Interseeding Pastures

Producers wanting to add to or improve the forage species in their existing pastures should consider using the frost seeding method in February and early March or interseeding later in the spring months, says Steve Barnhart, Iowa State University agronomist. The following are his recommendations:

Frost seeding involves spreading forage seed on existing pastures during the late winter or very early spring while the ground is still frozen. Freeze-thaw cycles provide shallow coverage of the seed, and early spring rains can also aid in seed coverage. Frost seeding is the easiest method for adding new forage legumes or grasses to existing pastures and is likely the least expensive method as well.

To increase this method’s success, spread seed on the thinnest pasture sod areas first and on areas where bare soil has been exposed due to heavy grazing or disturbance.

One common misconception about frost seeding is that spreading the seed on top of snow works best. The goal of frost seeding is to get seed on bare soil. This is more effective and more safely done without snow cover.

Interseeding involves using a no-till drill to incorporate a legume or a more productive grass into an existing pasture sod, Barnhart explains. Interseeding is normally done from mid-March through early May, when soil moisture and temperature are more suitable for rapid seedling establishment.

Interseeding can be accomplished with relatively few field operations. Opening of the grass sod, shallow seed placement and seed coverage are required. A number of drills are available that can be used in sod-seeding efforts.

Some of these drills may have improved features related to sod penetration, depth control, seed metering or coverage that improve their effectiveness in sod-seeding situations. Equipment limitations for sod-seeding implements can sometimes be overcome by operator experience and home shop modifications.

Legumes that are interseeded into grass sod should increase pasture yield, improve forage quality and eliminate or minimize the need for nitrogen fertilizer. Clover, alfalfa and birdsfoot trefoil have all been proven successful as options for interseeding. The more efficient seed placement provided by a no-till drill allows for a greater amount of productive perennial forage grasses to be established by interseeding. Thin, low-producing grass sod might best be improved by interseeding a grass-legume mixture.

A seeding delay into late spring to improve growing conditions often leads to a greater competition from the existing grass sod. Close grazing in the fall or spring, ahead of interseeding, will help to reduce sod competition. Contact herbicides are sometimes used to temporarily further reduce competition from plants present in the stand. Use only labeled herbicides for sod suppression, and follow label instructions.


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