Our Best Tips on Restoring a Pasture

Advice on how to create healthy pastureland, nutritious forage, and hay or wildlife cover for years to come.

By Oscar H. Will III | Photos By Jamie Cole

Oscar H. Will III is the editor in chief of GRIT magazine and coauthor of Plowing with Pigs and Other Creative, Low-Budget Homesteading Solutions (New Society, 2013). You can order Plowing with Pigs here.

A mosaic of plants and animals, grassland ecosystems are as complex as they are beautiful. That’s as it should be, and if you have a piece of tired hay land or pastureland, or simply an abandoned meadow, your acres will benefit with a renovation aimed at species diversity.

Census

0315pasture1To begin such a restoration, take a census of flora and fauna, and the relative density that currently exists, then decide how you want to alter it. But don’t just consider grasses; add in a few legumes and even some native broadleaf species to get the most from the soil. Next, pull soil samples and have them analyzed—with fertilizer recommendations made for the species assortment you desire.

If you want to completely change the species composition in a single season, your approach will include killing the existing matrix using tillage, chemicals or a combination of both. When working to modify an existing forage matrix, you will want to graze it down tight, mow it close or both to put the current plants at a disadvantage and open up some areas of bare soil. If you are working with particularly pernicious sod-forming plants, such as smooth brome up north or bermudagrass farther south, you may need to resort to high-density mob grazing, heavy tillage and/or chemicals.

Soil Prep

In most areas, fall is a good time to introduce seed for your desired species, particularly up north where there is a chance for snow cover. If snow cover is not likely where you live, spring planting may make more sense. Whether approaching a complete renovation or modification, if you wound up tilling your acreage, seed with a conventional grass drill or broadcast spreader. If you simply burned down the matrix with chemicals, a no-till interseeder works well.

Alternately, when modifying the matrix, your soil preparation can be as easy as a light disking to loosen up the soil surface when you are using a broadcaster to plant. If an interseeder-type drill is available, you can skip the tillage.

Planting

Planting can be as easy as running good-quality seed through a broadcast seeder over the area you wish to plant. For best coverage, spread half the seed in one direction and the other half in passes perpendicular to the first to ensure more complete coverage. With particularly small seed, it will be helpful to mix up to 50% sand in the broadcaster to help achieve the recommended planting density.

If you are fortunate and get snow cover soon after planting, the broadcast seed will naturally get pressed into good contact with the soil, which is needed for good germination. If your soil gets sufficient moisture come spring and receives a number of freeze-thaw cycles, there’s a good chance that much of the seed will be able to germinate without snow cover. For the most efficient germination with broadcast spreading, you can drag a roller, soil packer or very lightly harrow the area once the seed has been spread. The desired outcome is to put the seed into contact with the soil, but not leave it suspended above or buried too deep.

Maintenance

Controlled burning,

Controlled burning,

Care and maintenance are probably the biggest challenges you’ll face when rehabilitating your land. Mowing and controlled burning are two of the most effective ways to keep weeds under control and to give your desired plants a chance to thrive. For the first few years, you should mow your acreage when weeds reach 12 inches or more or are beginning to flower. Mow to about 6 inches if necessary—any lower than that and you could damage the growing point of some grasses. Mowing reduces competition for light and moisture while also keeping unwanted plants from going to seed.

Prescribed burning provides several benefits to your emergent prairie habitat. For safety’s sake, however, take the time to train yourself by participating in a burn with a seasoned veteran, or contact your state natural resources or conservation agency to see if they can offer any guidance.

Burning releases nutrients, controls scrub brush and ground litter, and also stimulates seed production and germination of some species. To control invasive cool-season species and woody plants, most burns are done in the early spring while most desirable species are still dormant. Be aware that some invasive species are stimulated by spring burning. So, do your homework.

Keep at it for a few years and you will be rewarded with a beautifully diverse matrix that will offer you nutritious forage, hay or wildlife cover for years to come.

Oscar H. Will III is the editor in chief of GRIT magazine and coauthor of Plowing with Pigs and Other Creative, Low-Budget Homesteading Solutions (New Society, 2013). You can order Plowing with Pigs here.