Are we having fun yet?
This is probably the hardest time of year for all of us. The rain is relentless, the mud is wreaking havoc, and the 10-day forecast doesn’t lend much hope. So what can we do about it? Right now, nothing. At least not until livestock are removed from the areas. If you are on your second or third sacrifice area, then there are a few things you can do in those areas you have moved on from. On these nasty, gloomy days let’s go ahead and think about better days and what we can do when it’s time.
Sacrifice Areas: Restore, Roots, Rest
Expect to put some time into those sacrifice areas. There are a bunch of nutrients here ready to be used, but there is also a disturbed soil structure.
Restore the area to that fairly level surface we need. First and foremost, work the area to get it smooth. The soil structure is already damaged, so don’t stress about using heavy tillage. It has also created a hard pan, which roots will struggle to penetrate. Try to open that up and use whatever equipment you have to get those areas smoothed out. Get it how you want it now while there are no forages present.
The next step will be getting some roots out there to start working for you. If this same area is your sacrifice area every year, it’s not worth investing in a slow growing perennial. Use the fast growth of annuals to your advantage. If you are able to move your sacrifice areas around, then perennial forages are an option. Our window for spring planting cool season perennials is limited- getting seed in the ground no later than mid-March is key for survival during the summer. Novel fescue, orchardgrass, red and white clovers will all be great options for these areas. The smaller seeds can be easily broadcasted into the prepared seed bed. If warm season perennials are needed, these can be established later in the season. Late March into early May we generally have good weather for establishing Bermudagrass or Bahiagrass. The last few years during extended periods of drought, I’ve really learned the value of having a drought tolerant perennial like Bermudagrass--it’s not just for those of us in the sand. Some warm season legumes with dense roots--like annual or perennial lespedeza, may have a place as well.
A general schedule for establishing annual forages:
February through mid-March: Canmore, Niagara or Everleaf spring oats
Late March through May: Mojo and Red River crabgrass, annual and perennial lespedeza
Late April though the summer: Leafy T millet, 9301 sudangrass, mixtures like Ray’s Crazy and Summer Breeze
The final piece of this sacrifice area puzzle is REST. To help that soil structure regenerate, it needs some time. Let your forages get fairly large prior to grazing them- 8-10” for perennials, 20+” for those tall summer annuals like sudangrass and millet. If you are unsure, do a pull test on forages before grazing. Since this ground has been worked, it will take some time to establish strong roots. This will help harbor a good environment for root growth, which ultimately feeds the microorganisms in the soil and helps create that porous structure that we need for water infiltration and further root development.
Rutted Up Pastures
Aside from our sacrifice areas, there are likely some pastures that have sustained significant hoof traffic damage but still have forages present. My biggest encouragement here is to not hold on to poor pasture- if it’s less than 65% desirable forages, consider a total renovation. We see excellent results with the spray-smother-spray program described in detail in our Pasture Renovation Guide. It may feel dramatic to do a total renovation, but the yield boost that you will get from committing to this renovation is worth it. Most grass based regions of the world do renovations every 3-5 years with the understanding that perennials have the majority of their production within the first 3.
Honestly, there are a number of options here that don’t include seed. Soil sample and put fertilizer out to pastures if needed, spray for broadleaf weeds if they haven’t flowered yet, and give it some rest. If you have a large percentage of desirable forages, the likelihood that they will bounce back is high. Mother Nature does a great job of trying to protect the soil and doesn’t allow bare ground. If you spray for broadleaf weeds that are filling in quite a few bare spots in the pasture, realize that those will not stay bare. They can either be filled with productive forage or more weeds. Interseeding is all about finding a balance between opening the pasture up and making sure that we don’t damage those seedlings as they start to grow. Clovers and forbs, like plantain and chicory, do a great job filling in between grass plants. If you are looking for a more palatable forage, need to reduce your nitrogen inputs, or just want a forage that fills in these small gaps well, these will do the job. If you are in need of more yield and have a large amount of grass damage, you can interseed grasses. Mow or graze these pastures down very low just prior to seeding. Broadcast or drill the fescue, orchardgrass, or mix into that low pasture. Add fertility if the soil test calls for it, and then give it rest. If the existing forages get a big jump on the seedlings, mow the area high to keep knocking back the existing grasses. This allows the young seedlings access to light and will keep them from smothering out. They are safe to graze once the new seedlings reach 8” tall. Keep in mind that if you interseeded cool season perennial grasses you need to protect them during the summer. Graze very lightly when we aren’t having extended droughty conditions.
Great interseeding options:
February through March: Freedom red or Renovation white clovers, Tonic plantain, Choice or Forb Feast chicory, Martin II novel fescue, Endurance orchardgrass, mixtures like Rejuvenate
March through May: Mojo or Red River crabgrass, Gaucho bermudagrass, Choice or Forb Feast chicory
Better days are coming. Keep your head down and start planning for the regeneration of your mud.