As the weather warms up and animals are readied for grazing, start the season off right by surveying your pastures to ensure they are optimized for success.
Meaghan Anderson is a field agronomist and Extension field specialist at Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. As part of her job, Anderson works one-on-one with farmers answering questions about pasture maintenance and upkeep.
The most common questions she fields center around reseeding and supplementing the existing pasture, managing fertility, and controlling weeds.
“A lot of times the questions I get asked are actually more of a symptom of an underlying problem the pasture has,” Anderson says.
When managing a pasture, one of the best things farmers can do is conduct a soil test, Anderson says. A soil test not only shows farmers where their pasture is in terms of fertility and pH levels, but it also gives them a sense of where they need to go to improve.
“My first question when a farmer calls me is ‘When was the last time you soil tested this field?’” Anderson says. “If they haven’t checked the fertility levels in the last several years, it is usually worth the test to determine if fertility is causing an issue.”
When a soil sample comes back with good numbers, that means phosphorus and potassium are not the limiting factors for the field’s potential. The results can also be a useful tool for Anderson or other field specialists to help with problems that might be spotted later.
It’s also important to identify goals for a pasture, or goals you have for the animals on that pasture. Being able to tell yourself or your field specialist what you want to get out of your pasture management can help optimize your time and may change how you approach the situation.
“I try to ask a lot of questions ahead of time,” Anderson says. “I want to know where the pasture is so I can look at soil maps or aerial imagery to see what it looks like. I want to get an idea of the topography or issues you may inherently have because of the landscape or the type of ground the pasture is on. Regardless of whatever the issue might be in the pasture, knowing where somebody wants to go is incredibly important in helping them get there.”
Anderson says there are a few standard things farmers should be looking for in their pastures this time of year.
**Areas in need of seeding/reseeding
**Pasture meeting greening expectations
**Weeds in need of control
**Areas in need of fertility supplements
Conducting a survey of these points allows for optimization of resources. Anderson says if you plan to reseed the field, you probably won’t want to use nitrogen fertilizer before reseeding because weeds and already established pasture species are just going to benefit from the nutrition. Having a plan in mind and using Extension resources from land-grant universities or consulting with field specialists can help your field in the long run.
Weed control is a particularly important pasture management issue during the spring, as some weeds, like the Canada thistle, require many years of maintenance before pastures are fully rid of them. Anderson says the level of weed management varies from farmer to farmer, as some have a higher tolerance for weeds than others and some species are more concerning than others.
Once your pasture is ready for animals, Anderson says it’s important to not overstock. For cattle, about 1 to 2 acres per animal is recommended. The life of the pasture can be lengthened even more if the animals are rotated between sections of the pasture.
“You should not put more livestock on pasture than it can hold or you are inevitably going to have problems,” Anderson says. “If there’s too much traffic, there won’t be enough feed and they’re going to overgraze it.”
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