Fall Pasture Renovation

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Fall is the time to reseed cool season grasses in pastures and hayfields in Burke County. Many pastures are overgrazed in July and August when fescue and Orchardgrass are dormant or barely growing, and weeds invade in areas that are abused or overgrazed. Typically we receive adequate moisture in late fall and this can help you achieve success when establishing new forage stands or overseeding old ones. September and October are excellent times to establish or renovate pastures, and we can actually get by with planting cool season forages up until mid-November in most years.

Always start by testing your soil so that you will know what nutrients your pastures or hayfields need, and fertilize and lime based on test results. Soil tests in North Carolina are still free to producers from April through November but there is a $4.00 per sample fee from December through March, so take advantage during this time and sample that soil. Soil test kits are available at the Extension Office on Ammons Drive.

To renovate or reseed your forage stands, clip or graze pastures close before reseeding. Sod drill or broadcast seed to suit your forage needs. Give careful attention to thin or bare spots, as weeds will invade these areas first. By seeding these cool season grasses in the fall, you will ensure adequate root development before dry weather next year. If weeds are an issue, it is usually best to control them before reseeding, but many pesticides have plant back restrictions and some can be as much as 120 days to a year so be aware when using herbicides. Sometimes it is best to reseed and then use a broadleaf herbicide later to control weeds, as many are gone once frost hits them. Most broadleaf herbicides can be used once grass seedlings have reached 5 tillers or five true leaves. Most often this would be the following spring or early summer, which allows producers adequate time to control most summer annual broadleaf weeds before they become competitive. Many winter annual weeds such as chickweed, buttercup and henbit can be controlled in February or March following reseeding once grass has reached the 5-tiller stage of growth.

Adding clovers to forage mixtures will improve forage yields and lessen nitrogen requirements. Producers should wait until spring to seed clover in renovated or new pastures. Frost seeding legumes during February and March works very well, as the freezing and thawing of the soil, helps incorporate the seed into the soil. Be aware that broadleaf herbicides will kill or injure clover, so always control weeds before planting legumes. Again many herbicides have plant back restrictions and clovers are sensitive to most of them, so read the label and act accordingly. It would be a shame to spend money to add clover to your renovation efforts and not have any come up because the herbicide you used last fall prevented it from growing. Adding clover boosts the nutrition of your forage stands, helps lessen nitrogen requirements and also lessens the effects of endophyte toxicity from infected fescue pastures, known as “summer slump”.

I recommend providing livestock with a mixture of grasses; after all, we don’t just eat lettuce at a salad bar do we. Improved varieties of fescue, both endophyte friendly and endophyte free are readily available and should be more palatable and boost weight gains. Tall fescue, Orchardgrass, Timothy (in parts of the county), and forage varieties of bluegrass can be seeded now to help rejuvenate pastures and hayfields. Other options for those seeking alternatives include Brome, Matua, ryegrass and festulolium that is a cross between perennial ryegrass and meadow fescue. Using different grass species in your pastures and hayfields helps provide variety to your livestock and can also benefit you in providing earlier and longer grazing, taking advantage of the best of each species, and you “don’t put all your eggs in one basket”.

Once producers renovate or establish new forage stands it is important to manage them correctly. Don’t go out and turn the cows out next March, and expect good results. New fall seeded forage stands should not be grazed until they have 6-10 inches of growth. Remember that what you have above the ground in blade growth is what you have below the ground in root growth, so allow the root system to develop properly and you will have a dependable pasture or hayfield. I’d recommend light grazing, removing livestock once grass is down to 4-6 inches of growth for pastures, around May following seeding, or cutting for hay at mid bloom and setting hay mower to leave a six inch stubble. This allows for quick regrowth and lessens damage to the root system. Allowing livestock on too early can result in damage from trampling and pulling young seedlings out by the roots when grazing.

Producers who renovate pastures and hayfields this fall will be more successful than those who invariably wait until spring, because fall seeded forages benefit from better root development when hot dry weather comes. Those who manage new forage stands properly, will help increase their forage quality, yield and persistence, and minimize weed invasion that occurs in thin forage stands.