Soil preparations for healthy forage growth

Paul Westfall, County Extension Director, Granville County
Feb. 16, 2014 @ 09:58 AM

Anyone with pasture for livestock, whether it be cattle, goats, horses or other grazing animals, should be planning to get some good quality forage grown, harvested and stored for the next feeding season.

As usual, the key to making those plans is being sure that up-to-date soil tests are available to work from to plan which soil amendments to apply. However, this year there is a different glitch in the system. Until March 31, 2014, each soil sample sent to the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Sciences lab will cost $4 to analyze. What that means is that a lot of people are going to wait until April to submit their next set of soil samples, and the existing soil fertility levels and pH will not be available until May or June.

What does that mean to the average producer? It means that things really haven’t changed much. In years past, soil sample didn’t cost anything at this time of year, but there were so many samples submitted that a grower who submitted samples on Jan. 15 had to wait over two months to get any results back. That meant that there was still no current information to work from when making all these fertility plans.

With all that in mind, we just have to adjust our plans a bit. In thinking about what grasses need in the spring to get off to a growing start, most people agree that a bit of nitrogen goes a long way. To that end, I usually recommend that folks apply 40 to 60 units of nitrogen per acre to boost that early spring grass production. I’ve heard some arguments recently against that practice, with the main argument being that grass is growing faster than the livestock can eat it. I’ll just say that cool season grasses like fescue and orchardgrass have the most growth in the spring of the year, which is also when most folks make most of their hay supply for next winter. A little nitrogen to boost that growth for hay, or to boost production for some stockers that won’t be on the farm that long, may be worthwhile. To take advantage of the spring growth, that dose of nitrogen needs to be applied by mid-March.

Once we do get the soil test results in May or June, then we can take a look to see if lime, phosphorus (P) or potassium (K) will be needed. The great thing about the lime, P and K is that they can be applied at any time of the year — they don’t volatilize like some forms of nitrogen will. Many folks like to add the complete fertilizer in September to coincide with the fall growth period of the cool season grasses. A good fall cutting of hay can be taken, the fields can be grazed as usual, or people can let the grass grow and use it for deferred grazing during the winter. Call it standing hay that doesn’t have to be baled, hauled around and then hauled back out and fed. The livestock does the harvesting and processing all in one operation. Think of it as a form of vertical integration on the farm.

For more specific assistance with planning a soil fertility program — and this works for lawns and gardens, too — contact the Granville County Cooperative Extension Center at (919) 603-1350, or the Vance County Extension Center at (252) 438-8188.