Starting the Forage Season Out Right

Keys to success before you mow or graze

Dairy cattle grazing in a pasture

Whether you make hay or graze animals, we are at the point in the year where the grass is greening up, and it is very tempting to begin your growing season management. Before you jump right in, there are some things that you should consider.

Soil compaction can have many negative effects on production including reduced water infiltration and significantly limiting the growth potential of your forages. Both machinery and livestock can cause considerable amounts of compaction when the soil is wet. If you are itching to get out onto your fields with equipment to spread fertilizer or for other management reasons, try to wait until things dry out a bit; the soil conditions should look like they do 2-3 days after a good soaking rain storm in mid-summer. Other methods to reduce compaction risk include starting with your driest fields first, using the smallest and lightest machinery possible, and ensuring your equipment’s tires are properly inflated. Over-inflated tires cause much more compaction than properly inflated tires

Grazing pastures too early in the year can significantly reduce yields. When perennial forages begin growing in the spring they draw on their root reserves to fuel their initial growth. If you graze forages too soon, leaf material is removed before the plants have time to replenish the root reserves through photosynthesis. As a result, the plant must draw on its root reserves again to replace the harvested leaf material. Drawing on the root reserves in successive instances will weaken your desired forages, reduce production, and give greater opportunity for weeds to out-compete your forages. I generally recommend waiting until forages are 8-10” tall before beginning your grazing season.

While you are waiting for your fields to dry out and grow to adequate levels, you can work on planning for the upcoming season. The first thing to do is review your soil tests. If your tests are more than a couple of years old you should take new ones. Knowing the nutrient needs of your soil and addressing them accordingly is a great way to increase your yields while making sure you are not needlessly spending money on soil amendments. You can learn more about soil testing here.

Generally, your fields and pastures will perform better with yearly applications of nitrogen. However, providing more than 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre in one application will result in wasted fertilizer. The plants are not able to uptake the nitrogen fast enough and it will volatilize or leach away. Not only is this bad for your pocketbook, but excess nitrogen leaching into streams and rivers has serious negative effects on water quality and the environment. While there are several forms of nitrogen available – commercial fertilizer, manure, and compost, for instance – make sure you adjust your application rate for the actual nitrogen content. For example, urea is 46% actual nitrogen. This means if you spread 100 lbs. per acre of urea, you will be providing approximately 46lbs of nitrogen per acre. If you have questions about the nitrogen content in your fertilizer, you can request that information from your supplier or contact your county UNH Extension office. As mentioned above, you will want to try to wait until your soil is dried out before using heavy machinery on your fields.

Waiting for the proper conditions in your fields and pastures can be difficult, but doing so can significantly benefit your overall production. If you have any questions about pasture or hay land management, our Dairy, Livestock and Forage Crops team would be happy to help. Contact us or keep an eye out for forage-related events throughout the year.

Original post written by Daimon Meeh, May 2016


Carl Majewski
Dairy, Livestock & Forage Crops Field Specialist
Full Extension Field Spec
Phone: (603) 352-4550
Office: Cooperative Extension, Taylor Hall, Durham, NH 03824