Techniques for Establishing Quality Pasture

Plant the seeds of a long-term investment in the form of thriving grassland, and reap the rewards of healthier livestock and richer soil.

Photo by Alicja Neumiler 

Whether you’re starting from scratch on previously uncultivated land, or taking on the restoration of conventionally cultivated fields, establishing a new pasture begins with soil preparation.

Begin with a soil test before planting a pasture. A traditional soil test measures pH, phosphate, and potassium availability in soil, and is a good place to start. Many other soil tests are available too, such as those for micronutrients. The more information you have about the soil, the better the decisions you can make. If you have cropland that’s been tilled and received only commercial fertilizer in the past, a transitional soil test may be all you need. If the land has been no-tilled or cover-cropped, received manure or compost applications, or been in pasture for many years previously, there may be organic forms of nutrients that won’t show up on conventional soil tests. In this case, a Haney test or similar test that predicts nutrient release from organic sources may be useful.

Correct pH and Deficiencies

I’m a fan of using natural processes to supply fertility as much as possible, but these natural processes require an active biology, and if you’re starting from degraded soil, it’ll be a long, painful process to create that active biology. I prefer to see immediate results, so I still like to get the pH in shape with lime, take care of sodium issues with gypsum, and get any necessary mineral nutrient levels up to snuff with fertilizers.

I prefer carbon-based fertilizer material, such as manure, sewage sludge, or compost, for mineral nutrients. It’s often difficult to get enough of these materials to do the trick, however, so I still lean on commercial fertilizer when starting a new pasture. My established pastures rarely, if ever, get any fertilizer; if you start out with a good supply of nutrients, you shouldn’t need any later, because the components will cycle back through manure and urine over and over. Monitoring soil nutrition with grid-based soil sampling is advisable, although you can also use a Haney test or similar test that takes organic materials into account.

Controlling the plants you already have is usually necessary, since most perennial seedlings won’t compete with existing vegetation. I prefer to kill existing vegetation with glyphosate, rather than tillage. I’m fully aware of the soil biology problems glyphosate causes, but I feel it’s far less destructive than tillage, and using it doesn’t bring up a fresh crop of weeds each round.

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