Biodiverse Pastures

pasture bouquet

Improving plant biodiversity in pastures has several benefits. A variety of species in a pasture will give grazing animals a range of plants to eat and provide a buffer against weather and seasonal variability. A combination of grasses, legumes and herbs will provide a mix of shallow-rooted and tap rooted plants, the latter of which will create channels into the subsoil and bring up necessary nutrients. A healthy pasture ‘polyculture’ results in a healthy soil ecosystem, improved water percolation and reduced run-off, which in turn benefits our streams and lakes.

So, how do you improve pasture diversity? One option would be to utilize the no-till drills that the UVM Extension office has purchased and incorporate the species of your choice into your pastures. Seed may be incorporated at 8-14 pounds per acre. An example might be 8 pounds of orchard grass, 4 pounds of ladino clover, and 2 pounds of chicory per acre. Chicory? Yes, but let’s clarify we are talking about forage chicory, which is not the same plant as the one seen growing on our roadsides. Forage chicory is a great plant for mineral nutrition in livestock and is highly digestible. If the goal is to add some legumes to pastures that tend to be on the wetter side, drilling in birdsfoot trefoil or alsike clover may be beneficial. On drier ground, with a neutral pH, alfalfa may be a good choice. Red clover is adapted to a wide range of soil types and is fairly easy to establish either through interseeding or frost seeding.

While there are dozens of commercial pasture seed mixes on the market, they are not all created equally. It’s important to read the seed tags and in many cases more information can be found online. For example, the website for the company of one mix that has been sold locally says, “In climates lower than Zone 4, plants may not overwinter. Persistence can be greatly increased if plants are insulated by snow cover.” Although we are in Zone 4 in the Lake Champlain region, a mix like this may only be marginally hardy here, especially when we have a winter with little snow. Always check that the varieties listed in a commercial mix are appropriate for our climate.

An example of this would be the perennial ryegrasses. It is preferable to select the ‘diploid’ rather than the ‘tetraploid’ varieties, which will increase winter hardiness. This terminology will usually be indicated on the seed tag. Tall fescue is best avoided, as it has palatability issues due to the presence of internal fungi that produce alkaloids. Tall fescue is often found in seed mixes developed for warmer climates. Meadow fescue, however, is a good choice as it is more digestible and is also more winter hardy.

One mix that we have had success with on our farm is a grazing mix described as ‘an excellent choice for high producing dairy livestock and grass-finished beef’. It contains 30% perennial ryegrasses, 30% grazing tolerant orchard grass, 25% meadow fescue, 7% medium red clover, 6% Alice white clover and 2% forage chicory. It’s a great all-around mix with grasses, clovers and the added bonus of the chicory.

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