Press-Republican

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May 1, 2011

Pasture management worth the effort

This is the time of year we look forward to all winter. April showers, or in recent days thunderstorms, bring May flowers, and for some of you that means mowing the lawn, a tedious weekly chore that must get done. For those of us with grazing animals, it means the end of feeding hay! You may be dreading the start of lawn-mowing season, but believe me, there are many of us who love to watch the grass grow.

While our short growing season makes tilling the soil and planting our annual crops quite urgent, there is another important crop that sometimes receives less attention than it really deserves. Often taken for granted, pasture is an important agricultural resource that many livestock farmers depend on for summer feed. While many of our larger dairies no longer depend on grazing pasture for a significant part of their feeding program, pastures play a much more important role in raising livestock such as dairy heifers, beef cattle, sheep and goats.

A well-managed pasture can in fact provide excellent feed to growing livestock with little supplementation. But what is well-managed pasture? Unfortunately, non-tillable, swampy, brushy or rocky fields that are poor in condition or fertility often end up as pasture. While they are probably not suitable for growing other crops, these types of lands also make very poor pastures.

All too often, livestock are turned out into one big pasture for the summer and left to their own devices. If a livestock owner's goal is to grow his animals in the quickest, most efficient way possible, this is unlikely to provide the nutrition needed.

A more modern view that has developed is that pasture should be seen as a perennial crop that deserves the same care and management as other crops on the farm. Pasture management can be complicated. Few other farming activities involve growing a crop, growing livestock and harvesting the crop all at the same time. Maintaining balance requires close observation and dedicated management. As with all crops, many factors must be planned for to grow and maintain a consistent, high-quality pasture. Certain varieties of grasses and legumes provide higher quality and yields than native grasses and brush. Better quality soils and fields will also grow better pastures.

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