A Walk Through the Pasture is Time Well Spent!
By : Chris Penrose, Extension Educator, Agriculture & Natural Resources, Professor, OSU Extension, Morgan Co. (originally published in the late fall issue of The Ohio Cattleman magazine)
As I walk around the pastures this time of the year, especially with pasture growth starting to slow down and leaves turning color, I really notice what worked this year and what things went wrong. I also try to think of ways we can reduce tearing up our fields when we feed hay this winter. I try to notice trends that may need to be addressed for next year before they get out of control.
For example, for over 25 years, I had been mowing under my fencerows and I had been successfully controlling weeds. However, over the past 15 years, Autumn Olive has been growing and spreading along my fencerow. Whenever I mowed those plants, more would re-sprout. It got to the point where I could not see the fence in areas. Two years ago, I felt like I was left with no choice but to use a herbicide on the fencerow. It worked very well and I am getting this issue under control.
Another trend I continue to see is the spreading of Spotted Knapweed and other undesirable weeds in pastures. If you do not have them, keep them out! From July through September, keep an eye out for spotted knapweed in your fields and along the road. If you see one, pull it up, put in a plastic bag, dispose of it, or burn it. One this year will become a hundred next year. They have been trying to invade my farm for the past five years and I have been pulling them up or spraying them along the road where they tend to get established. When I see some starting in my fields, I spray. I do think it is a battle I will lose over time and like many, may need to spray entire fields with a broadleaf herbicide at some point. I have seen this weed in many places south of U.S. 22 and east of U.S. 23.
As you walk can you notice other trends? For example, two of my paddocks have some poverty grass growing in them this year. That is a sign that I need to take a soil sample because my pH and phosphorus levels are low, probably very low. When you have a situation like this, it will take time to correct, so now is time to take soil samples and get the p.H. corrected before adding fertilizer. However, we can also help this process along.
I had one field on my farm that was run down by harvesting hay for the past twenty years. More recently I have fed hay in the field during the winter. Now the organic matter and fertility is way up and is very productive. If you have an area that needs to be improved, is feeding hay there an option? If you are feeding large round bales, can you move them out to the field before the weather turns bad, space them around twenty feet apart and utilize portable electric fence to allocate the hay as it is needed this winter? Even if you feed small square bales, can you feed it this winter in those areas that need fertility?
When you feed hay out in a field in the winter, there is a strong chance that the soil may get exposed from the heavy livestock traffic and tractors. Can this be avoided or minimized? In addition to moving large bales out before bad weather, can you feed small square bales with an all-terrain vehicle when the ground is soft so damage can be reduced? If you are able to consistently feed in different spots, damage can be minimized. If damage to the field becomes too severe, maybe a heavy use pad is a good option for you. Can you still see signs where hay was fed last year where maybe there is a weed problem? Now is a good time to plan to reduce potential issues.
If you feed out in a pasture or hay field this winter and damage is not too severe, but soil is exposed, frost seeding may be a good option for you in February and March. Some that have put out round bales in a certain area may do so with the understanding that the area will need to be lightly tilled and reseeded the next spring. This is where an area with low fertility will work well. The added fertility and organic matter from the hay and manure will help if a new crop is established.
Finally, are you still grazing, or are you feeding hay? As you think about the season, was there anything you could have done to extend the grazing season? Even now, are there potentially any hay fields you could graze without damaging future crops? Are there crop residues that are available? One of the most underutilized crops for grazing in Ohio is harvested corn fields. If you have cattle, and calve in the late winter/early spring, is there an area you can keep the cattle off of until calving time to reduce mud issues?
As we walk our forage fields now and move towards winter, there is still time to plan and evaluate to reduce issues for next year such as mud and fertility. We also need to look at trends such as invasive species establishing themselves on our farms. They are much easier to control when there are not many. Finally, if fields are looking run down, now is a great time to soil test so we can figure out where fertility needs corrected for next year.