Planting a new pasture
Radio interviw source: Ellen Phillips, crop systems educator, University of Illinois Extension
We turned some cropland into pasture for our sheep not too long ago. We planted alfalfa and oats as the cover crop for the first year. We harvested the oats, and then the alfalfa was established. Oats are good for about four years before you have to plant another crop like corn or beans for a year as a rotation, then come back again with alfalfa.
When you're planning your pasture, it's important to know what will be grazing on it. For instance, horses will get fat on pure alfalfa, so they do better with grasses. Ellen Phillips is a crop systems educator with University of Illinois Extension. She usually recommends planting a mix of forages.
"A combination of alfalfa and smooth brome, or alfalfa and orchard grass, we might substitute red clover or white clover for that alfalfa depending on the species," Phillips says. "Sometimes we have just plain Kentucky bluegrass. That works adequately for some animals."
Access to irrigation is the primary concern in determining what species to plant. Drought-tolerant plants aren't as palatable or productive, but if you live in an area without sufficient water, it's your only option. If you're at the other end of the moisture meter, another factor to consider is tolerance to standing water.
Of course, if the right soil nutrients aren't there, nothing's going to grow well. The only way to find out is by doing a soil test.
"Extension's got plenty of information on how to take a sample," Philips says. "When you send in the samples make sure you tell them it's for a pasture because the recommendations will come back differently if you tell them it's for hay. You want to take samples in the fall and then follow the fertilizer recommendations that come from the lab as far as how much nutrients, fertilizer needs to be added back. That can be organic fertilizer, or your regular chemical fertilizers. Either one works fine."
Once you've determined the nutrient levels, get rid of the weeds and any other vegetation with a herbicide. The best results come from a clean seed bed. Many small pasture owners then drill in or broadcast the seed, and lightly drag the field to establish good soil contact. Planting depth should be about a quarter-inch. If it's any deeper, the seeds will have trouble coming up.
Let them eat grass: Your livestock will be happier and healthier if you let them out to graze.
Pastures: Get tips for a successful grazing program, and recommendations for grasses and legumes to include in your pasture.
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