The Best Tips for Restoring A Pasture
You need the right process—and the right equipment—to get your pastures in shape, especially if they’re new or neglected. Here’s how to do it.
By Oscar H. Will III
Spring is a great time to think about preparing for your perennial pasture improvement plans. In most cases, you don’t want to completely kill the existing plant matrix, as you can get positive change without starting over.
Before starting, it’s good to know what your desired outcomes are:
- Do you wish to add more legumes or wild flowers to help attract beneficial insects?
- Do you want to revitalize a flagging cool-season pasture with more heat-tolerant grasses?
This is possible, and much more, when adding a pasture-improvement strategy to your grazing strategy.
The process of pasture improvement can be divided into four steps: assess, prepare, seed and manage. Our assumption with this project is that you are working toward maximum plant species diversity with your pasture, and that you have access to the proper equipment for the job.
Assess Your Pasture
Walk your pastures and note perceived problems with weeds, sparsely populated areas, wet or dry areas, and come up with a plan for improvement. This is best accomplished with research, and by consulting with your local agronomists and/or Extension agents. Let them know what your goals are. Be persistent, and if the local experts are unfamiliar with your goals, find others who are.Fertility and pH issues will need to be solved with your target goals in mind.Click To Tweet
Pull soil samples from problem areas as well as productive areas of the pasture and have them analyzed for macro and micro nutrients. It’s more expensive, but can be quite useful when considering mineral supplement needs for your livestock. Fertility and pH issues will need to be solved with your target goals in mind. Inputs should be applied as recommended by the soil tests, while taking your goals into account. Save money by only applying the needed supplements in the areas that most need them.
Prepare Your Pasture
It’s good to graze a pasture hard going into winter, to the point of overgrazing, particularly in areas where you want to elicit the most change. This may require an infrastructure investment; electric fencing is a good partner. If you haven’t grazed down the pasture, mow it close with a rotary cutter. You want to set back the perennial matrix and open up the bare soil so that it can better receive seed.
Apply any recommended lime, but not fertilizer, to avoid loss over winter and to give the existing vegetation a head start come spring.
In many cases, this is all the preparation that you need to accomplish before seeding, especially if you plan to employ frost seeding as your planting strategy (see more below about frost seeding). If frost seeding is not a likely strategy for your area, then you can lightly till with a disc harrow with the disc gangs set to almost straight, or you can use a forward-rotation rotary tiller set to about an eighth of an inch or so. Don’t try making a clean seedbed with it, you just want to scratch up some soil. Tillage should be carried out as close to the seeding window as possible to avoid erosion.
Seed Your Pasture
Seed application can be accomplished with either a precision seeder, a 3-point broadcast seeder or pull-behind drop spreader. The Woods Precision Super Seeder will work well in existing sod as well as on bare ground, and it includes a rear roller to handle pressing the seed into contact with the soil. You will use less seed with the Precision Super Seeder, and should get better germination compared with other methods.
If broadcasting, apply half the seed in one direction and the other half perpendicular to the first to minimize skips. Once the seed is spread, however, you need to get it into firm contact with the soil for best results.
Frost seeding is the least labor intensive broadcast seeding method. In the north, where late winter and early spring offer a good period of freeze, thaw cycles you can let that process draw the seed into contact with the soil or even bury it in the little cracks that the cycle creates. You will want to time seeding to coincide with the temperature cycles for your area. Frost seeding is not typically used with tillage, and can yield very good germination.The Woods Precision Super Seeder will work well in existing sod as well as on bare ground, and it includes a rear roller to handle pressing the seed into contact with the soil.Click To Tweet
If you employed some form of tillage ahead of spreading seed, and even if you simply spread seed on non-tilled ground, you will increase germination by pressing the seed into firm soil contact. You can accomplish this very effectively by pulling a cultipacker over the seeded areas; choose a model that is suited to your tractor’s capacities. Alternatively, you can fence the planted areas and feed the last of the season’s hay to your herd in the area. The hoof action of sheep, goats and cattle will do a great packing job.
Manage Your Pasture
Getting good seed placement and optimal seed-to-soil contact will go a long way toward improving your existing pasture matrix. However, you can bring it along further and faster with careful management. Assuming you receive timely rains, the seed should germinate well and the seedlings should become established.
Once established, you can apply the fertilizer that was recommended by your soil tests. As the less desirable plants begin to grow and compete with the newly planted seedlings, you can put them at a disadvantage by cutting the pasture to slightly taller than the new seedlings. Alternatively, you can “flash-graze” the paddock by employing a large herd for a relatively short period. Flash grazing can significantly set back the larger and better established vegetation and favor the smaller seedlings. You will want to monitor the forage carefully to ensure that the new seedlings aren’t being grazed preferentially and you will want to be ready to move the herd to a new paddock quickly. Through the first season, you can continue to help the newly planted forages by repeating the cycle.
Monitor your improved pasture as you might normally and understand that getting to the ultimate end goal might take a couple of seasons. The advantage to this approach is that you can still run a lot of forage through your animals in that first season and use them to help the process, in addition to timed mowing and additional smaller seed applications to reach the pasture matrix that delivers on the goals you set out to achieve.