You can plan your way to better pasture and hay
Step 1: Natural resource inventory
Anyone who reads this column on a regular basis knows the importance that I place on building forage systems around the natural resources present on your farm/ranch. This should be the starting point for all forage production decisions.
A good place to start is soil type information that can be obtained from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. In fact, they have a “Pasture and Hayland Suitability Group” rating and an estimated yield production potential designation for each soil type.
Other natural resources to consider are hydrologic information, topography, non-forage vegetation and wildlife. There are numerous print and electronic resources available to obtain most of this information including the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Missouri CARES, and MFA’s Precision Agronomy Services.
Step 2: Current livestock inventory
Obviously, you should always know your current livestock inventory. Is it enough to meet your financial needs? Are you tracking, sourcing and verifying animals in a way helpful for planning future forage production needs? What are your current animal and forage levels? Do you need increased forage production to maintain the current animal numbers present? Generally speaking, improving forage production efficiency will decrease other inputs, stabilize winter feeding requirements and provide options for increasing animal numbers.
Step 3: Current forage species inventory
Each and every field needs a complete inventory of the forage species, weeds, brush, sprouts and trees present. This should be used as the starting point for maintenance, renovation or re-establishment of any species. Species inventory should be used in developing yield goals, total forage supplying capacity, grazing and harvest strategies and field modification prioritization.
Step 4: Future livestock goals
Before renovation or pasture improvement activities are initiated, future livestock goals need to be determined. In many cases, perennial forage establishment can take a few years to reach optimum production. A flexible five-year plan is usually about as far out as can be maintained. Not only do future livestock needs affect today’s renovation decisions, but they can also affect crop rotation sequences, especially if a kill-smother-kill renovation program using annual smother crops is required. I always emphasize targeting slightly higher goals compared to estimated on-farm forage needs. Extra forage can always be stored for future needs or sold. The 2009/10 year offers a prime example of the need to overestimate winter forage requirements. We went into last winter thinking we had more than adequate hay/silage supplies only to come up short long before spring greenup.
Step 5: Develop an accurate set of equipment needs
It is important to monitor the forage production capital needs of your operation. Careful planning of the vehicle, haying equipment, tractors, planters, storage, fencing, and watering requirements of your operation is very valuable. With the exception of a few rotational grazing purest programs, I am a firm believer in hay/silage production being a key component of any operation that utilizes on-farm forages.
One helpful hint is to try to estimate all farm supply, equipment and maintenance costs on a per acre basis. This is a real eye-opening exercise that will help prioritize forage production decisions.
Step 6: Forage species selection
This can be one of the toughest, yet most important components of a quality forage program. You have choices of perennials vs. annuals, grasses vs. legumes, warm season vs. cool season species, mixed stands vs. monocultures. My advice to growers is to use any and all of the above combinations based upon your needs, experiences and personal preferences. I firmly believe that planned diversity (either within field or between fields) is what separates the great forage producers from the good forage producers. To make the most out of your land resource base, try to diversify forage type or forage uses to stretch the grazing season to as many months as possible. An example of this is to pull animals off of tall fescue in the summer and put them on a warm season grass until as late in the fall as possible. The “rested” fescue fields can then be conditioned and fertilized properly in August to provide an excellent stockpiled forage resource base.
Step 7: Forage crop nutrition management
Crop nutrition is a critical component of any forage system. Hay removes much more nutrients than does pasture. Cool season crops require a different fertilizer application timing than do warm season crops. Soil pH adjustments vary appreciably among forage crops.
All forage nutrition programs should start with soil testing. Soil test recommendations are uniquely designed to address specific forage species needs. For multiple use fields, it is a very good idea to annually rotate hay fields and pasture fields. This will allow the animals to naturally redistribute nutrients across your farm/ranch.
Step 8: Forage integrated pest management
Many folks don’t feel forages require the pest control intensity compared to their row crop counterparts. In reality, weeds, insects and diseases cause millions of dollars in lost forage production across our region annually. Eliminating weed, brush and sprout competition in pastures alone can increase forage and beef production by over 50 percent. Insect control in high value hay crops like alfalfa saves millions of dollars in lost revenue annually. Disease control in forages is more preventative (variety selection) than reactionary (fungicide treatments). For example, WL Alfalfas offer a tremendous disease resistance package compared most other alfalfa varieties. In our environment, a good disease package often provides at least two years extended stand life.
Step 9: Forage harvest management
Harvest management plays a critical role in forage production, quality and persistence. With almost all forages, quality declines as the crop matures. For instance, tall fescue harvested in April/May will contain several percent higher protein content and 25 to 50 percent higher relative feed value compared to fescue harvested in June, July or August. Weather plays an important role in when crops can be harvested, but planned options like bagging the first cutting and species/harvest diversity limiting the total number of acres needed to be harvested at any one time goes a long way toward efficient harvest management.
Step 10: Farm record keeping
Keeping accurate records of all livestock activities is extremely important. Forage production is no exception. All inputs should be carefully recorded and tracked. I am not an economist, but estimating the cost per unit yield produced (hay, silage, beef, milt, etc.) should be recorded as accurate as possible. Keeping a record and budget can help tremendously when evaluating inputs to be made concerning all phases of future forage production management decisions.
I have provided a brief overview of a ten-step forage systems program. Each step contains hundreds of options, and only you can decide which are best for your location. The steps are not necessarily chronological and are certainly not mutually exclusive. In reality, they are completely intertwined and inseparable from each other. As always, best wishes in developing the best forage system possible, and don’t hesitate to contact us with questions, concerns or comment
Dr. Paul Tracy is director of agronomy for MFA Incorporated.