COLUMN: Pasture management fundamental to livestock farmers

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By Bryce Roberts

Farmers who raise livestock, whether cattle, horses, sheep, or goats, should think of themselves as forage farmers as well. Increased use of forage reduces feed costs and increases potential yield per animal; to some extent, it is an input that a farmer can manage himself to minimize concentrate purchases.
According to a Top 10 list put together by scientists at the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center (USDA-Agricultural Research Service), using forage benefits the land by increasing organic matter and can improve nitrogen levels found in the soil. Lastly, it is a sustainable practice that reduces surface water runoff and slows or prevents the leaching of nutrients; forage-covered fields need less fertilizer and they protect soil year-round.
Spring provides a good opportunity to assess fields and create a working plan that is economical and increases or protects the fertility of the land. Good pasture management enables livestock to graze on pasture for more days of the year. To increase days on pasture, farmers should first implement a rotational grazing system to allow pastures time to recover. Having two (or more) pastures and rotating stock back and forth increases the fertility of the soil by allowing the empty pasture to replenish itself.     Increasingly, farmers are grazing livestock on alternative pasture such as wooded areas, swampy spaces, and even green swards with mobile flocks of sheep or goats using portable electric fencing.
Farmers should consider the following:
• Good planting practices. Farmers must establish strong stands of forage, using high quality seed of proven varieties and timely planting.
• Soil test. Inexpensive soil tests tell farmers how to best use lime, phosphorus, potassium, and nitrogen top dressings. This improves yield, quality, and stand life, and it also reduces weed problems.  Soil testing is free for Spencer County residents and it is available in our office.
• Nutritional needs. Cattle, horses and goats, for instance, each have different nutritional needs. These variations are further impacted by the age and use of the animal. Weight gain, lactation, and pregnancy (last trimester) require pasture with high levels of nutrients. Farmers need to match the pasture to the animals’ requirements.
• Stocking rates. Grazing the right number of animals is extremely important to short- and long-term grazing success.
• Pasture alternatives. Consider grazing animals on crop residues (corn, soybean), dormant alfalfa, hayfields, and even turnips and other brassicas.
• Legumes. Use legumes as much as possible. Examine each field individually, assessing its potential for legumes, either as an introduction or enhancement planting.
• Reduced use of stored hay. Farm efficiency can be measured through use of stored hay. This expensive input should be as low as possible, indicating strong forage management. Additionally, farmers should reduce waste of stored hay, silage, and concentrates.
• Invest time. Your investment of time and care is necessary for a grazing program to be successful.
Feel free to contact me at your Spencer County Cooperative Extension Service at 477-2217 or you can email me at broberts@uky.edu.  You can visit the Spencer County Extension Services’ website at www.spencerextension.com.
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