Spring Forage Management Reminders

— Written By and last updated by Patricia Burch
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The longer, warmer spring days are upon us and it certainly feels nice! I’m sure many of you share my excitement and eagerness for warm weather and more sunlight. If you manage a hay field or pasture for your livestock, or are planning to plant one, now is the time to make some final management decisions and plans. What you do now will ensure spring pasture growth starts off right and leads into a productive summer.

For those wanting to plant a new pasture or hay field, your first decision will be what to grow. Is bermudagrass the ideal forage for your land? Are you interested in growing hybrid bermudagrass, or maybe a seeded variety? There is a difference, starting with when and how to get this done. Hybrids spread and reproduce by stolons (above ground growth) and rhizomes (below ground growth). Any seeds seen on a hybrid plant are sterile, so we must start a field by planting “sprigs” which are small plants that have been dug from an established field and then re-planted to a new field. While hybrid bermudagrass, such as Coastal, Tifton 44, or Midland 99 should ideally be planted anywhere from mid February to mid March, they can still be planted into April. There are sprig suppliers in the area that sell and will deliver sprigs to your field. Our office can assist with contacts to sprig suppliers if this is your choice. Seeded varieties of bermudgrass are also available and may be a better choice for small acreage locations or the flexibility of later planting dates.

Of course, there are other forage choices you might decide to plant. Bermudagrass is a perennial plant, which will grow throughout the spring and summer and become dormant during the winter months but come back again the next year, and that is one reason it is often preferred. However, there are annual grasses that could be planted, such as pearl millet or crabgrass, and these will grow well and provide plenty of grazing throughout the warmer months too. If you want the flexibility of planting something new each season, an annual such as these may be a better choice for you.

Either way, if a soil sample has not been taken in the past 2-3 years, it’s time to take one. Ideally, a soil sample is taken prior to the growing season, but anytime is better than none. Soil fertility changes over time and may not always be optimum for forage growth. Both establishing and planting forages for new pastures and maintaining fertility on existing pastures require soil sampling. Pastures in southeastern NC will need to maintain around a 6-6.5 pH for maximum productivity. Soil pH tends to drop off over time and additional lime may need to be applied in order to bring these levels back to normal. The soil sample will provide useful information with both lime recommendations and fertilization needs. Stop by the Extension office to pick up a soil test box and instructions on sampling.

Another important step to starting off spring growth is fertilization. Meeting the needs of the plant will allow for the optimum production of the crop, whether for grazing or hay. Fertilization for warm season grasses should be applied in split applications throughout the growing season, generally with the first application in April or early May. Again, the soil test is a handy tool in knowing what the nutrient needs of your pasture are, being based on what is currently available in the soil and depending on the type of pasture you are growing.

Along with the spring growth of our pastures, comes the growth of various weeds. There are several products on the market to help with this. Emerging warm season weeds, such as pigweed, dogfennel, bitter sneezeweed, sicklepod, and horsenette can be effectively controlled as long as they are treated while still immature. At the same time, chemical herbicides generally work best when applied in moderate temperatures (60 degrees or better). A precaution to note: some herbicides are damaging to neighboring crops, such as tobacco and cotton, so be careful to select a safe product if these crops have been planted close by. Choosing to apply herbicides during calmer days or times of the day is also a good idea as wind will carry these chemicals farther than you might think.

In addition to controlling broadleaf weeds that invade our pastures and hay fields, there now are more options for grass-type weeds. Many fields battle competition from crabgrass, bahiagrass, goosegrass, and vaseygrass just to name a few. Once you’ve identified the weed or weeds you are dealing with, a selection can be made of the most ideal, appropriate, yet economical method or chemical to achieve this goal. For your copy of an updated list of herbicides labeled for forages or for assistance selecting a product, contact the Extension Center at 910-592-7161. We will be glad to assist you in decisions to get your spring pastures started off right.

The use of brand names and any mention or listing of commercial products or services in this article does not imply endorsement by North Carolina State University nor discrimination against similar products or services not mentioned.