This summer’s rainy, severe weather has had quite a negative effect on pasture quality. Visiting several grazing farms over the last month, we have seen that many dairy herds have been periodically housed and fed in the barn or barnyard in order to help preserve pasture stands, soil quality and animal health. In some cases, as with dairy heifers or beef cows, herds have been moved up on higher ground with somewhat better drainage, to help manage mud and decrease compaction issues. Some farmers have chosen to run their herds through tall stands of grass that may have otherwise been cut for hay. Although, animals will waste a lot of this lower quality mature forage, the upside is that what they trample will form a mat that can help reduce pasture damage.
However, even with these tactics, it has been challenging. Animal traffic on wet soils can cause soil compaction; pugging (holes) from hooves, leading to rough surfaces; areas of bare soil; potential runoff issues; and reduced plant density and yield. If despite your best efforts, your pastures are showing signs of this kind of damage, there are some basic things you can do now that some sunny weather is on the horizon and soils dry out a bit.
If pastures appear to have less plant density, using the UVM Extension no-till drill to plant new seed may be an option to bump up the diversity and species composition. There are numerous options for this depending on your goals, system, etc. One option would be to drill in grass species such as perennial ryegrass or orchard grass mixed with a legume such as Ladino clover. Another option would be to try an annual crop such as oats, triticale, or turnip for fall grazing. In some cases, it may be easiest to broadcast the seed and then turn the cows in to help stomp the seed into the ground.
For pastures that are severely pugged (also called ‘ankle breakers’) you may consider running a harrow to help smooth out the soil surface, and then planting your choice of seed. For large areas of bare soil that have developed extending from gates, water tubs and other heavy use areas, consider a crop like tillage radish. It can be seeded alone or mixed with a grass such as ryegrass and seeded at 10# per acre. Last year, we saw success seeding tillage radish into a heavy use area at this rate, yielding both nutritious tops that can be grazed after 45 days and large tap roots that help break up soil compaction.
To sign up to use the drill or to discuss seeding options to help amend summer pastures, producers are encouraged to call the Middlebury UVM Extension office at 388-4969.