Milkweed and All That

Prior planning increases the chance of success
Cattle grazing in a rocky pasture

Different situations, same solutions: You planted that TAR seed mix (Timothy, Alsike and Red Clover) they recommended at the feed store. What’s all that other stuff growing there, and what can you do about it now? Or, you leased this field for a pretty low price last Fall, and seeing it now you're not sure it was such a bargain!  Common enough things we hear this time of year, especially from newer landowners wanting to improve their pastures, grass meadows. I’ll mention a few useful resources throughout this article; an approach that may help.

First, get a soil-type map of your land from the local NRCS office, or off the internet using Web-Soil survey. This give you an graphic picture of your soil’s true potential. There is a reason why so many NH farmers went West during the mid-1800s. Our rocky, wet soils were a big part of that, “so rocky you had to pry up the sun with a crow-bar” comes to mind.

If the land looks promising for forage crops, follow-up with an in-the-field assessment. It should be done by you and a knowledgeable individual, someone with a trained eye who knows what are desirable plants, what are not. An experienced farmer, crop advisor, seed/fertilizer salesman, Extension or USDA representative are possible candidates. All tend to be rather busy this time of the year; you may have to go it alone.

Some things to-do, discuss during this field visit t include:

  1. Doing a darn soil test – This will give you an idea of the fertility of the soil and what’s needed to improve it. Unlike the ‘NRCS soil type …and coffee I brew’ this is something that can be changed. I’m biased and like the one run by UNH Extension through Penn State. At $12 for the basic test, it identifies your soil’s fertility status and tells you the specific nutrients needed to benefit the intended crop. You can get a soil test form off our web-site or at the local Extension office. It’s the “Commercial Corn, Forage, Pasture’ one.
  2. Take a Look – Try a fairly zig-zag course across the field to truly understand it’s potential. This is also important if you’re popping soil test samples along the way. Both a representative test and close-up look is what you’re trying to achieve. It would be good to record your observations either on a hand-drawn sketch map or something using more exacting technology, as you like. Our Five-Year Crop Record Worksheet may help.
  3. Talk it over– This is your farm and whatever you hope to accomplish should be at the top of the list. Some subjects a crop advisor might ask are: How has the land been managed in the past, and most recently?( grazing, mowing, seeding, fertilization practices, what, how and when)  What and how many animals do you have, plan to have, is the land for grazing, haying, an exercise yard or combination…all are hard to do at once. What equipment do you have available? What do you have time to do?

This should lead to an overall discussion about what’s there now and how the land will be managed in the future. I recall a wise Agronomist who once said: “you can spend a small fortune planting a field to alfalfa, but if you manage it like grass, you’ll get grass” True for other crops as well.*

 As my role-model Yogi Berra might say “You can observe a lot by watching”.  Perhaps those weeds are telling you something? They are terrific indicator/ survivor plants that have adapted themselves to whatever conditions are now prevailing. They’re usually less than optimum for useful forage plants. Once established many have aggressive, spreading root systems that help keep them there. Lots of suspects in that category: Canada Thistle, Milkweed, Yellow Rattle.  By studying past management, current soil fertility and physical limitations, why they’re growing there becomes understandable. Is it really all that surprising that there is no usable grass when pastures are closely grazed, the pH is acid-low and no nitrogen fertilizer has gone down for many seasons? Yes, herbicides can eliminate weeds (be sure to check label restrictions on harvest, grazing intervals..) but they don’t address root causes…pun intended…

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