Thomas B. Massie, Jr., DVM
It is in the fall that I think most about changes that should be made to improve spring and summer pastures. While I am not by any means an agronomist, I do see many examples of successful techniques used by clients. Unfortunately, I also see many examples of wasteful, ineffective methods that range from no care to ill-timed/ planned treatments. After years of watching these various techniques, I have decided that many of the less expensive methods employed are actually much more expensive, in the long run, due to poor results.
It has been said that the most consistent way to remain profitable on the farm is by soil testing and treating the soil in response to its needs. This “blood sample” from your soil can tell its specific needs to allow for optimum growth of your proposed crop. The key is to make the samples truly representative of your field by including many areas in your sample. It may also be necessary to sample and apply treatments to individual regions of the field. If this is done well and appropriate changes are made within the pasture, the dependence on supplemental feeds can be greatly reduced by extending the grazing season. Soil samples can be submitted to the VA Tech Soil Testing Lab and results usually return within a few weeks. Sample containers and submission requirements can be obtained from your local extension office.
Weed control is also something to plan for in the fall as we look out to see our pastures overgrown with ragweed, pigweed, thistle, cockleburs, etc. These weeds will primarily grow in stressed areas of the field. Usually they are noted in heavy traffic areas, feeding stations, and other disturbed soil. The soil in these areas may need to be sampled individually to discover their unique needs. Doing this prior to reseeding can go a long way to improve growth quality. I advise those just starting to think about pasture/weed management to take serial photographs of the same field on a monthly basis throughout the growing season and review them in the fall as you make plans for change. These can be shown to crop scientists, extension personnel, etc. when attempting to describe you current situation. These photos can also be used to look back at long term improvement over a number of years.
Over the last few years several products have been developed to help with weed control in pasture and can be very effective if applied in a timely manner. These products are usually based on some old herbicides, but with some modification have much improved efficiency, longer residual effects, and reduced soil toxicity. A product that I used with increasing frequency in the last three or four years, is Grazon P+D. This product has been very effective and can be used safely in grazing pastures that house cattle, horses, goats, sheep, etc. In most cases, no animal removal is necessary. The only exception to this guideline involves hay production from these treated areas. It is recommended that treated hay not be harvested within 30 days of application. A three- day slaughter withdrawal is required for cattle from treated pastures.
For those who choose to not use herbicides, the primary method of control will be prevention of overgrazing/ overuse and timely cutting of weeds. The undesirable grasses and weeds must be cut prior to the time of seed formation to have a chance to control them. This will require multiple cuttings per year. It can also be very effective to harvest hay from a pasture early in the year (prior to seed) to remove the offending plants. Controlled burning has also been very effective in some parts of the country, but this can be dangerous and difficult to accomplish.
We are very fortunate to have many award winning farms in this region that can serve as a resource for the rest of us. The producers on these farms are very vigilant and quite knowledgeable with pasture/crop management.