At the March kick-off meeting for the Athens area grazing council, some cattle owners talked about the beating some of their pastures have taken this winter. Cattle on pastures in wet, muddy winters can destroy a sod base. What are the options for these pastures? Well, I'm guessing that any experienced cattleman and grazier knows the answer, but there is something in human nature that compels us to ask anyway, just in case there is that new thing that will allow us to have our cake and eat it too. So, unless I have missed it, there is not a silver bullet or easy solution to this question. It comes down to management and trade-offs.
What are the options for pastures that have been tore up this winter and early spring by cattle hooves? Here is my list:
* Remove the cattle and do nothing. Time is the great healer and something will grow back. Whether that something is desirable for grazing is another question, but if the tore up pasture was primarily tall fescue, that plant has an amazing ability to recover and grow back. It may be early summer before an attempted grazing pass could be made and the stand will probably include annual broadleaf weed species as well as some of the summer annual grass species.
* Remove the cattle, smooth out some of the roughest spots and broadcast some red clover seed and give it time. This is just one step above the do nothing option, except the goal is to try to improve the quality of what will come back by throwing out some red clover seed.
* Remove the cattle, smooth out the area and do a no-till seeding of annual ryegrass or annual ryegrass combined with a brassica or cereal grain. The goal here is to have something of good quality ready to graze within 50-60 days. Annual ryegrass can be seeded at 25-35 lbs/acre by itself. In combination with a cereal grain such as winter wheat or oats, use a rate of 15 lbs/acre annual ryegrass plus 90 lbs/acre of the cereal grain. Another option that some have used is combining the annual ryegrass with a forage brassica. Seed the forage brassica at 3-5 lbs/acre with annual ryegrass at the 15 lb/acre rate. All of these combinations will allow the pasture paddock to get back into the grazing rotation and be used throughout the summer. The end of August could be used to seed this paddock back into some perennial forage species.
* If this was a heavy fescue paddock and the goal is to keep the fescue out, then work up the area and plant it to a summer annual such as brown mid-rib sorghum x sudangrass or brown mid-rib sudangrass. These are competitive, fast growing, and tall growing plants that will prevent the fescue sod from re-establishing. The management keys are to plant the sorghum x sudangrass or sudangrass when soil temperatures are 60 degrees (later part of May usually) to insure quick germination and a good stand, so tillage before the seeding and/or a herbicide application may be needed if the area has weedy regrowth. The second key is grazing management because this plant grows very fast with summer temperatures. Manage with heavy stocking densities of short duration beginning 45-50 days after seeding. In late August/early September do a seeding to re-establish perennial forage species in the paddock.