Spring Pasture Renovation

I like to think of myself as planner, but sometimes life happens and we forget about the thinking ahead part.  With pasture renovation, we should be planning and thinking ahead.  When we should be thinking/planning we’re also trying to wrap up a cropping year.  We’re all just busy.

Pasture renovation can be partial or a complete renovation. Partial renovation we’re attempting to not start over, but enhance what we are growing in the pasture.

Complete renovating a pasture ideally begins in Fall when we can terminate the forage.   By Spring, once the frost is out, we can no-till seed into the killed sod at 1/8”, assuming we want a cool season mixture. If we have not killed the sod in Fall, we need to wait until temperatures are warm enough for the plants to be actively growing before we can terminate.  Spring termination sets us back a month or more.

I get excited when the new grass seed catalogs come out, looking for what’s new and improved and then trying to find these “better” varieties in some Midwest universities forage testing trials to confirm their superiority.   As you review the trials you should start to notice there can be 2 to 6 tons of variation between some varieties.

My corn and bean growing neighbors routinely review yield plot data from university trials as well.  My guess is if they noticed a variety yielding 50% less than another, they may not pick that one.  Yet, producers with pasture ignore available information, call the coop and ask them to send out some (insert species here), and whatever is laying around (often VNS) is seeded.  If they don’t carry the varieties you’re interested it, keep looking.  Are you really willing to give up that much yield and settle for what your supplier has on hand?  Look for a new (and more knowledgeable ) supplier.   If you do choose to settle, please to don’t whine about low production pastures.

Before you renovate, I encourage folks to think about why they need or want to renovate a pasture.  Why do you have what you have?  Is it your management, is there a fertility issue?  There’s often an underlying cause, an unproductive pasture is result, a symptom.  We can renovate, but over time if we change nothing else, it will revert to its’ current species composition.   There may be enough of an improvement in yield and production before it reverts to cover the cost of the renovation, but then again it might not.  Soil tests are cheap information to enable you to make a better decision. It’s economically foolish not to take advantage of them.

We want to look for quality seed with high germination rates.  In a partial renovation, ideally we will have weakened the stand the Fall prior with close, tight grazing.  Most pasture in Wisconsin fit this description already.  Clover is the most successful species we can interseed, red and white clovers are more aggressive as a seedling and able to compete with the existing sward.  Grasses are much slower and less aggressive from seeds, and so generally do not interseed these.  A possible exception is perennial ryegrass, but this is short rotation grass that may only survive a 1-2 seasons.

In complete renovation, we need to consider species, a single species, a little diversity or highly diverse mix.   For pasture, the more diverse the mixture, the more even the production over the entire grazing season.  Some species grow better at different times of the year or under different heat and moisture conditions. As a minimum, I’d suggest thinking about 3-4 species of grass, 2-3 legumes and possible consider a forb. This is not a highly complex mix.  To rules there are always exceptions, and the exception here is endophyte free tall fescue.  Do not put tall fescue in a mix, this one should be planted alone.  While high yielding and persistent, it is less palatable than all other species, resulting in over grazing the other species in the mix leaving behind the tall fescue which will quickly become the dominant forage.

Our goal for a seeding rate is in the 50-75 plants per square foot range.  As you seed higher rates, there is increasing competition among the seedlings.  It looks great, but by the end of the season, mortality will be excessively high and you’ll end up around 50-70 plant range anyway, AND there will be not difference in yield.  A handy seeding rate calculator is available here https://fyi.uwex.edu/forage/hay-and-pasture-seeding-rate-calculator/

Summary : Soil test, seed early as possible, review and select improved varieties, final seeding goal is 50-70 plants per square foot, and ensure good seed/soil contact, just not too deep.

Written by: Gene Schriefer, Extension Ag Educator, Iowa County, and recently appeared in Wisconsin Agriculturist

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