Pasture Management, Not Just a Summertime Job

— Written By Mitch Williams and last updated by
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It is February, the night time temperatures regularly dip into the 20s, the days are short and the ground is saturated. Believe it or not, spring will be upon us before we know it. Soon trees will start sprouting, temperatures will start rising, the ground will (hopefully) start drying out and the days will be longer once again. Now is a good time to begin planning your pasture management strategy for the year. Several things that you can do now include soil sampling, scouting for areas that need replanting, scouting for weeds, and checking fence.

Now is an excellent time to soil sample your pastures. North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services recommends sampling every 2-3 years in sandy soils, and every 4 years on heavier soil. As of today, soil sample results will be returned in about 2 weeks after submitting it to the lab. Remember, there is a $4 per sample fee from December 1 – March 31.

Soil sample test results are no better than the soil that is actually submitted to the lab. To take a proper soil sample, first decide how you would like to divide the pasture. If you would like to manage it as one complete unit, only submit one sample. If you would like to submit samples for each paddock or split up into smaller sections, you must submit a sample for each area. Take 15-20 samples at a depth of 4-6 inches, from the area which you would like to sample. You can use a small trowel but a soil probe is best. Mix all of these soil cores in a plastic bucket. (Avoid galvanized containers, these can throw off the sample results.) Finally, fill the box up with the soil from the bucket and voila! You now have a representative sample of that area.

Soil test results will tell you the pH of the soil, specific nutrient levels in the soil, as well as other parameters such as the CEC (Cation Exchange Capacity) and the soil textural class. To the untrained eye, these numbers are very confusing, however, NCDA&CS gives you a recommendation for the amount of lime and fertilizer to apply. These recommendations are based upon the pH of the soil, the target pH (based on the crop that you select on the soil sample forms), the CEC, and other parameters. You can also contact N.C. Cooperative Extension in Lee County for a further explanation of your soil sample test results.

We get many calls from folks looking for their soil test results. The easiest way to look up results is on the NCDA&CS Public Access Laboratory Information Management System or PALS for short. This can be accessed at PALS.

This time of the year is also a good time to decide if you need to replant areas of your pasture. There are several companies that plant forages in our area. Some forages such as fescue can be planted from seed, others need to be propagated from sprigs. Any areas that receive heavy traffic, or are always problematic weed areas will probably need to be addressed. If you don’t plan to plant forage yourself, be proactive and contact the forage planting specialists early so that they will be able to fit you into their schedule. For a list of companies that will plant or sprig for you, please contact N.C. Cooperative Extension in Lee County.

Do you remember the weedy patch in the back 40? You know what I’m talking about…the one that is weedy every year. Grass never seems to grow there, but you don’t worry about it because you can’t see it from the road? Yea, that one! Now is a good time to start planning your herbicide program for the year. Timely preemergence applications, applied in March or early April, can really help with weed control all season long. Just because weeds aren’t emerging in February, doesn’t mean you can’t start making a plan to control them; you don’t have to wait until they are a problem to make an herbicide application. One more thing to remember, depending on your calving season, now is an excellent time to check your fences. Since you are already going to be out in the pasture pulling soil samples, scouting, etc., check those fences. We want to keep those newborn calves in the pasture, not wandering across your neighbor’s lawn.

By doing a little work now, you will be setting yourself up for a better pasture for the rest of the season. For more information, contact Mitch Williams at 919-775-5624 if you have questions about pasture management.

Mitch Williams is the Agriculture Agent (Field Crops and Livestock) for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.