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Managing mud damaged pastures

By Mark Landefeld, Ohio State University Extension Agriculture Educator, Monroe County

Every livestock owner I have talked to the last few weeks has the same situation, more mud and more tracked-up fields than they can ever recall before.

Mud increases stress for the livestock and the farm manager. The way you manage, or don’t manage, muddy conditions affects your livestock’s performance and may have a big impact on damaging forage plants in your pastures.

So, what are we going to do with our pastures and areas, which have taken the hits this year? Options range from complete renovation of the area, to doing nothing and allowing nature to take its course. My guess is, that both options, and something in between may be practical on most farms this spring. Even within a paddock, different treatments will probably be necessary because zones closer the water source will likely have more damage than other areas of the paddock.

The dilemma: to add seed, or not to add seed? If we do nothing but give the areas time, forage will grow. What forage grows will be determined by how badly the area was tracked-up, the variety of seed dormant in your soils and your pastures fertility levels. It certainly seems we all have weed seed waiting and ready to grow if given the opportunity. So, what is a weed? In pesticide classes over the years, I’ve heard and I’ve said, “a weed is a plant growing out of place.” Luckily, for us, our livestock can utilize many weeds that grow in our pastures and get a good amount of nutrition from them, but a little extra help may be needed this year.

I think our job now, in these moderately to heavily tracked areas, is to try and determine what is going to come back in these torn-up fields. Then we can provide assistance where we deem necessary to help retain, or obtain, the species of forage we want in those fields. Where heavily pugged fields and tracking with machinery have occurred, complete renovation is probably going to be needed. Other areas with moderate damage might be smoothed with a drag or other implement when the soil firms enough to get equipment on it and then seed the area with a no-till drill (This can take place on partially frozen ground as well as dry soil). In the lightly tracked areas, frost seeding should prove very beneficial to producers. This would also be a great time to increase the percentage of legumes and or grass varieties in your pastures.

Frost seeding is a relatively inexpensive and quick way to incorporate new seed varieties or cultivars into a paddock. Light tracking from our livestock’s hoof action has provided the openings needed for the seed to make good contact with the soil in many pastures this year. Any producer wanting to use the frost seeding technique needs to put the seed on now, or in the next couple of weeks. As the name implies, frost seedings need freeze and thaw cycles after seed application to work properly. I always get producers asking me in mid/late March if they can still do frost seedings.  My answer is generally, yes, you can still put the seed down, but if you don’t get several frosts after seeding, the results are probably not going to be what you want.

In moderately damaged areas where complete renovation may not be needed, but we feel we still need to do something to reduce weed pressure, introducing a quick germinating variety of seed such as Italian ryegrass can be beneficial. These seeds start quickly and may help shade out unwanted weeds. This seed may be introduced by frost seeding methods we just discussed or by no-till drilling the seed into the soil. When soil conditions permit, seed could be introduced into some less damaged areas by no-till drilling the seed into the soil.

Finally, as growth begins in the spring, new legume and grass seedlings will have a better chance to survive if they have help competing against the established plants. Frost seeded pastures should be grazed lightly or clipped in the spring at regular intervals when grass plants are around 8 inches in height. This will allow sunlight to enter the canopy so new legume seedlings are not shaded out. However, do not allow animals to graze newly seeded areas so heavily (to heights less than 3 inches) that they ruin the seeding before adequate roots are developed. Temporary electric fence may be needed to control livestock and prevent overgrazing. Strict grazing management to allow plants an adequate rest period after each grazing pass must be implemented to produce strong root systems and maintain healthy plant growth. If continuous unmanaged grazing is allowed to occur, your frost seeding efforts will be pointless.

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