How to Work on Improving your Forages
By Doug Hanson, ProHarvest Seeds
Forage & Cover Crop Lead
It is often said that a properly fertilized pasture or hayfield is the cheapest forage you can buy. With current land values and high input costs (seed, fertilizer, diesel fuel) it is important to get the most out of land that has been dedicated to forage production. Finding 1200# round bales for $25 to $30 per bale is no longer practical. With forage values ranging from $120 to over $200 per ton it is important to manage forage production with the same intensity as corn and soybeans.
Pastures will increase production with added fertility. I like to use 200 pounds of ammonium sulfate in either spring or fall. Mid to late August is the best time in Illinois. Spring fertilizing can be done in late February through mid March. This is also around the same time that wheat is being fertilized. This will provide around 40 pounds of nitrogen and it will also provide some sulfur. Legumes will respond to Sulfur like grasses respond to Nitrogen. Ammonium sulfate can be used in the granular or liquid forms depending on availability from your supplier. It is often the cheapest source of N on the market. This can change from year to year and by supplier location. ESN (encapsulated Urea) or comparable types of time released products are another good source of Nitrogen. You will need to check with individual suppliers if you want Sulfur mixed in with your ESN.
Pastures will perform best if they have some legumes with the grasses. Legumes can make up as much as 35% of the pasture. I think this is too high for most beef producers. I would recommend more in the 20 to 25% range with good management.
I like to add white clover seed and sometimes red clover, if a pasture needs legumes, when I am fertilizing in the spring. Three to four pounds of a good white clover (not Dutch white) is more than enough. If using red clover I would go with 8 to 12 pounds. A mix of 3 pounds white and 5 pounds red is a good way to hedge your opportunity. I have seen years where one clover will do better one year, and the other type will do better the next. Therefore, this reduces risk and provides more variety in the pasture.
Two hundred pounds of ammonium sulfate applied to a grass Alfalfa mix hay field is an excellent way to increase hay tonnage and create more healthy roots. The Alfalfa will respond to the sulfur and it will respond to the Nitrogen early in the season before Nitrogen fixation takes place. The grasses will respond to the Nitrogen.
If a hayfield is under performing it is best to add grasses or red clover in the fall. It will compete against the existing plants better and will have minimal weed pressure. If you realize after first cutting that a field suffered a high percentage of winter kill it is going to be too late to help the hay field for the rest of the summer and it will probably be economically wise to terminate the field after the first cutting. Terminating the hay field and planting it to a high-quality summer annual could yield anywhere from 6 to 10 tons of good quality feed. If you add your first cutting tonnage to that number you will see why summer annuals can really help meet a farms forage needs. Some popular summer annuals to use are Brown Mid-Rib (BMR) Forage Sorghum, BMR Sorghum Sudan Grass, Sudan hybrids and Hybrid Pearl Millet. Teff grass can definitely be an option if you want dry hay, but it is more difficult to get established.