Slow Pastures? Delay Fertilizer Application Until After First Cutting

Drought, prolonged cold weather, and the resulting lengthen winter grazing season, all contributed to a slow green-up in the Midwest this year. ( USDA )

Many cattlemen can agree—it’s been a dry winter and spring. Drought lingers from the Southwest all the way to the Northern Plains. But it’s also been cold, and that’s never a good combination for pasture or hay production.

“Most of the pastures in Missouri and some of the surrounding states are unproductive because of a cold March and April,” says Craig Roberts, University of Missouri forage specialist. “This is the coldest and driest year we’ve had on record in our state. When it’s that cold, there not going to be any growth, even with cool season grasses.”

Warmer temperatures this past week over the middle of the country has everyone ready to get caught up. But Roberts advises producers might want to hold off on applying fertilizer to pasture or hay ground this year, at least until after the first cutting.

The late green-up caused many grazing cattle to grub down plants further than normal.  

“Any time we put that amount of pressure on the plant, even a plant that is semi-dormant, then it has a difficult time growing after green up,” Roberts says.

Unlike legumes, such as alfalfa, grasses store the plant’s carbohydrates above ground in the stem base. If cattle have grazed all the way to the plant base, there is little reserve left for the normal spring flush when temperatures are right.

Now that temperatures have warmed, cattle producers are anxious to make up precious grazing time. First, scout current forage conditions. Pastures that were grazed over winter will likely be farther behind than others.

“In our part of the state, if we fertilize now with 60 lb. of nitrogen, we may or may not see that show up in our cool-season grass,” Roberts explains. Cool-season plants are already near the boot stage, meaning they are actively shooting up seed heads.

“When we fertilize we are not wanting stem growth, we want leaf growth,” he says. “Putting on 60 lb. of nitrogen this time of year could cause toxicity problems. We are hoping to see people to cut back on the nitrogen fertilizer, go ahead and take the first cutting off—which will undoubtedly be stemmy and low yield.”

“It’s so late in the year, I would tend to put on less nitrogen—30 lb.—because the cool season grass is going to be semi-dormant soon, “ he advises.

The regrowth is going to depend on rain, he says, but proper grazing management is the key to preventing this situation for next year.

“If you look at the cold weather, the lack of moisture and the extreme grazing pressure over winter—those are really the three factors that have caused this shortage of pasture. It’s not just water,” he says.