Ag Notes: Tips for renovating hay and pasture fields

February 10, 2004|JERRY LITTLE

If you have a less-than-productive grass pasture or hayfield, following some simple renovation techniques will increase its productivity. These practices include planting a legume such as red clover, controlling pests, and adding lime and fertilizer.

Adding legumes to pasture and hayfields has several benefits, including higher yields, improved quality, nitrogen fixation, and more summer growth.

Seeding legumes increases the total forage yield per acre. One study compared adding red clover to a fescue pasture with fertilizing the grass with nitrogen. Red clover with fescue produced higher yields than fescue fertilized with up to 180 pounds of nitrogen per acre.

Adding legumes also improves forage quality compared to grass alone. This increases palatability, intake, digestibility and nutrient content, resulting in improved animal performance. Research studies have shown that legumes improve animal rates, reproductive efficiency and milk production.

Legumes also add or "fix" nitrogen in grass pastures and hayfields. Inoculating seed adds symbiotic bacteria that lives in "knots" on plant roots and fixes nitrogen the legumes need. Different legumes are able to fix varying amounts of nitrogen. Alfalfa usually fixes the most, about 200 pounds per acre, while annual lespedeza fixes less, about 75 pounds.


Legumes make more growth during the summer than cool-season grasses. Grasses and legumes together increase summer growth.

When renovating grass fields with legumes, have the soil tested and apply the recommended lime and fertilizer. Legumes need higher soil pH and fertility levels than grasses. Do not add nitrogen because it stimulates grasses, increasing competition with legumes.

Reduce vegetative cover on the soil to make it easier for legume seed to make contact with the soil. The best way is to allow heavy grazing during early winter.

Select legumes based on the soil and your planned use of the forage. For hay, alfalfa or red clover usually is best. A red clover-ladino clover combination works well for both hay and grazing. Ladino clover, red clover and/or annual lespedeza are good choices for pastures.

Select certified seed varieties that perform well in your geographic area. Also, be sure to mix a high-quality inoculant with seed just before planting. Apply a sticking agent to be sure the inoculant sticks to the seed.

Be sure seed makes good contact with the soil. One of the best ways to do this is to use a pasture renovator (no-till drill). Another method is to use a disk, field cultivator or field tiller. For alfalfa seeding, almost all sod should be loosened from the soil.

You also can use herbicides to kill or suppress grass to help control competition. Be sure to follow the herbicide label directions for rates and grazing restrictions.

A simple effective technique is to broadcast legume seed on the soil surface in later winter, generally Feb. 15 to March 15. Soil freezing and thawing covers the seed. This method doesn't work well with alfalfa seed.

Controlling grass and weed competition is one of the most critical practices for successful renovation. Many attempts have failed because grass was allowed to grow and reduce the light, nutrients and water available to young legume plants.

Keep grass short by grazing or mowing until legume plants are three to four inches tall. Stop mowing for several weeks so legumes will become well established. Mow or graze the field on a schedule to keep legumes in good condition.

Once legumes are established, use soil test recommendations as the basis for the fertility program.

Take soil samples every third year to check fertilizer and lime needs. Mow pastures when needed to remove grass seed heads and control weeds and woody vegetation.

Contact the Boyle County Cooperative Extension Service for recommendations on successful pasture renovation.

Church mice

Three pastors met and were talking over conditions at their churches.

The first pastor said, "You know, since summer started, I've been having trouble with mice in my church. I've tried everything - noise, cats, spray - nothing seems to them away."

The second pastor said, "Yeah, my church, too. There are hundreds of them living in the church basement. I've set traps and even called in an expert exterminator. Nothing has worked so far."

The third pastor said, "I've had the same problem. So I baptized all mine and made them members of the church. Haven't seen one of them since."

Jerry Little is Boyle County extension agent for agriculture and natural resources.

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