September 7, 2008

Top 10 Pasture Management Problems

By Dr Clive Dalton and Dr Deric Charlton
Most farmers think they know how to manage pastures by moving stock around the paddocks, but there's more to it than that. Pasture is the cheapest livestock feed – when it's grazed. Silage and hay are more costly as they take time and machinery to produce, and the most costly feed is bought-in supplements. The best way to learn to manage pastures is to lie down on your front, stick your face in a pasture, study it, and understand how it grows. Read up a lot and plan your feed supply well ahead.

The following additions to the earlier post on pasture basics are intended to help you understand your pastures and how to make the most of them, so you'll keep your livestock well fed, healthy and productive. The problems listed are in no particular order.

Problem 1 – poor spring feed
It's early spring, but the season is late and your pastures offer little feed for livestock about to lamb or calve.

Problem 2 – excess spring feed
It's a warm spring, pastures are bolting away and you are buried in feed. They'll be growing at over 100kg DM/ha/day and you haven't got enough stock to eat it. In addition, stock prices are high so you cannot afford to buy any extra mouths.

Problem 3 – sudden drought
It's now early summer and your stock and pastures look marvellous. It rains regularly and the grass is still growing well. All the spring-born calves and lambs are growing like mushrooms and the milk is flowing. Suddenly, before Christmas, it starts to dry out.

Problem 4 – dealing with drought
Summer heat has turned the farm to desert and no substantial rain looks likely for weeks. The farm pastures are bare.

Suggestions to solve these problems

When spring pasture growth is poor:
  • Accept that your stock will not achieve their potential for most of the season.
  • Accept you have blown it by poor management decisions that should have been made months ago.
  • Applying nitrogen fertiliser won't help! It won't produce feed for 6-8 weeks, even if the weather improves and the soil warms up.
  • The law says that farm livestock must be adequately fed, watered and sheltered – so buy supplement feed – silage, hay or concentrates and feed your stock.
  • Give any stock in late pregnancy some good quality feed – to boost their energy.
  • Analyse how the situation developed – decide firmly that you'll avoid this situation again.
  • You only make a mistake like this once in farming!

Dealing with excess spring feed
  • Panic slowly!
  • Take as much of the farm's pasture area as you think appropriate (guess if you can't calculate it) out of the grazing rotation, and make balage as first choice, or silage.
  • For top quality silage, cut it when you think there are 10-15% seed heads showing in the grasses.
  • Book a good contractor and treat him/her well!
  • Consider applying some nitrogen fertiliser on the silage pastures for fresh, highly nutritious regrowth.

When drought sets in quickly
  • You shouldn't have relaxed!
  • Even when pastures look good you should be planning ahead for a post-Christmas dry spell.
  • Drought can easily come early! When rains stop, the December heat soon slows up pasture growth and dries out the soil.
  • Apply some nitrogen fertiliser in October – to build up a feed bank that carries you through into January/February.
  • Take an early hay crop – those paddocks can be grazed again before they burn off.
  • Don't delay haymaking until the pasture plants are dried off.
  • Shut up some paddocks – for deferred grazing.
  • Force mature stock to graze off paddocks that have headed – these pastures will become leafy before the summer dry spell.
  • Paddocks that cannot be topped (they may be too steep) should be grazed off with mature stock. If you don't have your own – beg or borrow them, but don't steal them!
  • Top paddocks with surplus growth (to encourage leafy regrowth) before drought begins, but avoid mowing them too low.

Dealing with drought
  • Sell all stock and use the money for a holiday! However, the bank manager will want to see you when you return…
  • Make sure all stock have access to ample good clean water, and feed out supplements – silage, baleage or hay.
  • Feed supplements when the livestock need it – this avoids trouble with the law. (Current dairy advice is to delay feeding out supplements until after rain, when all the dry litter rots away. Ignore this advice.).
  • If all these supplements are used up:
  1. Buy more supplements.
  2. Sell some stock.
  3. Graze stock off the farm.
  • Nitrogen fertiliser won't save the day – it needs rain to work.
  • Avoid applying nitrogen fertiliser in hot weather – it will be lost by volatilising.
Problem 5 – rampant weeds
The farm is constantly covered in tall grass, and weeds, especially docks and thistles, are always rampant. From a distance it looks like an over-mature hay paddock. The pastures are never "cleaned out", and never produce good quality green feed. Your neighbours hardly dare tell you that the farm looks awful!
  • You are grossly understocked – you have too few animals.
  • Graze some more animals, such as dry cows or big steers – buy, beg or borrow them.
  • Buy electric fence gear and contain the stock tightly.
  • Force mature stock to clean out their allocated pasture – don't be a softy and move the fence when they complain.
  • Unless you do this, you'll never grow good quality pasture.
  • Retire an area from grazing and make silage or hay.

Problem 6 – poor pastures
Your pastures are as bare as a pool table in most seasons, and especially in winter. Spring or autumn flushes never occur, and your livestock are permanently skeletal. Even the roadsides near the property are as bare as the road! The paddocks are covered in dry dung pats. There's not a weed in sight, except some very mature docks. The neighbours dare not tell you how dreadful your farm and livestock look, and some are considering informing the SPCA!
  • You are grossly overstocked – you have far too many animals for the property.
  • Sell off some stock.
  • Buy in some supplement, either hay or silage.
  • The property probably needs fertiliser – seek expert advice.
  • Learn how to manage pastures.

Problem 7 – no clover
The clover has disappeared from the pasture. This is a major problem – clover is highly nutritious stock feed. Supply of free nitrogen, fixed by the clover root nodules converting atmospheric nitrogen into soil nitrate, stops. This powers all the pasture plants, so growth grinds to a halt.
  • Check for insect pests. The clover flea scrapes the underside of the leaf, and the clover root weevil scallops the leaf edges and its small white larvae eat the roots and nodules. Slugs eat clover at night, chewing matching holes from the closed leaflets – like origami.
  • You may have been applying too much nitrogen fertiliser – above 200kg N/ha/year.
  • Grass plants were allowed to grow too long in spring and winter, shading out the clover plants.
  • Too many hay crops have been off the paddock.
  • Renovating the pasture will re-introduce some new clovers into the sward.
  • Check soil fertility and review fertiliser policy at the same time.
  • Change grazing management to encourage clover – avoid letting grass get too long before grazing the pasture.
Problem 8 – no good grass.
Most of the good grasses have disappeared from the pasture. There is very little ryegrass and cocksfoot present. Browntop, Yorkshire fog and harsh-feeling rats tail dominate the pasture. Weed grasses, like paspalum and summer grass, dominate pastures in dry summer and autumn.

  • Renovate the pasture and resow suitable new species.
  • Check soil fertility and review fertiliser policy at the same time.
  • Change grazing management to encourage tillering and prevent grasses going to head.

Problem 9 – terrible horse paddocks.
Your horse pastures are unevenly grazed and unproductive. Some areas are grazed so closely that they resemble a closely mown lawn. Dung-covered areas are full of tall, uneaten pasture and weeds.
The paddocks will be "horse-sick" – intestinal parasites will be circulating freely from these overgrazed pastures to the animals.

  • Remove the horses on to clean pasture if possible.
  • Defoliate the long pasture areas and either remove or harrow the dung heaps. When the pasture recovers, graze with another animal type to break the parasite cycle.
  • Introduce rotational when grazing the horse pastures. Remove dung regularly once some clean pasture is available for grazing.
  • Renovate the pastures with species and cultivars designed for horse grazing.

Problem 10 – pulled pastures.
Grass tufts have been pulled up by grazing cattle and even the roots are lying on the pasture surface.

  • Check for pasture pests such as grass grub, Porina and black beetle larvae that feed on grass roots and cut them, weakening the plants' anchorage. If you find more than 3 grubs per spade spit, then you have an insect problem that may need appropriate chemical treatment or complete cultivation.
  • Check the soil at root depth. There may be a compressed area or pan preventing the roots from penetrating, and this may render them more easily pulled up by grazing cattle. This compressed soil pan often occurs in pastures after heavy pugging during winter.
  • A complete pasture renovation programme may be needed to break up the pan and sow new species and cultivars.
  • Avoid pugging pastures in winter.

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