Questions and answers with MFA Director of Nutrition Dr. Jim White.
What do you see when you look at a forage stand? A source of livestock feed or a commodity to be sold? The more forage you have, the more cattle you can feed. Fertilizer is a principal input cost for a forage crop. There are no substitutes or shortcuts for providing adequate nutrients. Cutting back on fertilizer will likely cost more over the long run because of decreased yields and stand longevity. We recently dropped in on MFA’s Director of Nutrition Dr. Jim White to ask a few questions about strategies for improving forages and what they can mean for cattle performance. His responses are below:
Q: We are in a pinch when it comes to forage. We had the drought of 2018 followed by the swampy mess of autumn 2018, a cold winter what seems likely to be a delay of a grass-greening spring. From a production perspective, what can we do to make up some ground on forage bases?
A: When you add up all the pasture, grass hay, alfalfa, corn and sorghum-sudan silages, millets and grazing small grains, forages account for the most acreage of any U.S. crop, yet they continue to be neglected when it comes to fertilization. The majority of grazing lands receive no fertilizer of any kind. The resulting low forage yield and daily rate of gain are widely accepted on land with low perceived value. It is good to look for ways to reduce fertilizer costs, but it’s all about efficiency of production. Indiscriminate reductions in fertilizer will likely lead to reductions in yield and an increase in the unit cost of the hay. Cutting costs in forage production should be done in a way that has a minimal impact on the forage yield.
Q: So, you advocate a fertilizer plan to get more per acre of pasture and forage ground. But how do we accomplish that with input costs being what they are and our general farm balance sheet sliding in a direction we would prefer it didn’t?
A: Make the investment in fertilizer more efficient by using soil test results. If you do not soil sample and apply fertilizer and/or lime based on the results of those tests, it is likely that the appropriate amount is not being applied. If nutrients are under-applied, the result is forage yield below its potential. If over-applied, then costs were incurred that won’t produce a positive response. Few other practices in forage production can improve the profitability more than soil testing and following fertility recommendations.
Q: It comes down to using the right product in the right place at the right time. We hear that consistently about row crops. How does it apply to pastures?
A: Apply fertilizer to fields where soil test values indicate an economic response and where the soil pH is in the optimum range. If the soil pH is too high or too low, you won’t get a good return on investment. Rather, first focus on adjusting the soil pH in those fields. If the pH drifts much below 6 or much above 7, the availability of some nutrients in the soil will decrease. For example, a pH difference of 5.6 versus 6.2 can effectively reduce the value of nitrogen fertilizer by as much as 35 percent, phosphorus by as much as 50 percent and potassium by as much as 10 percent. Lime is a key ingredient to improving soil fertility. Since water is required for lime to react with the soil, effects of a lime application will be slower in dry conditions. It often takes six months to a year before a response can be measured, even under perfect circumstances. However, a response may be observed within weeks of application when soil pH is extremely low. In areas where needed, it is important to apply lime immediately after the growing season or crop removal to allow it to react and correct soil pH before the next growing season.
Q: That’s a longer-term fix. What can we do in the near-term to boost pasture and forage production?
A: Nitrogen is usually the most limiting element in forage production. This major nutrient is involved in chlorophyll development for photosynthetic activities, yield and forage quality. Nitrogen, however, requires some timing and proper manipulations to get good yields and reduce losses. Splitting N applications will reduce the risk of leaching, volatilization and nitrate toxicity. Nitrogen-use efficiency can be significantly increased by phosphorus fertilization. Optimal soil phosphorus level should be between 30-40 ppm. If the P level is low, it could allow only 40-60 percent of total hay production. In the spring, P is a crucial nutrient in promoting the development of new roots and tillering. Phosphorous could be applied to a hay field any time of year since it is very stable and available to the plant when needed. When fertilizing annual crops, however, P should be applied before planting. Avoid spreading phosphorus fertilizer when there is risk of runoff, which is the primary way this nutrient is lost from soils.
Q: What should we do in-season over the grazing months to prepare for better results in fall and next year?
A: Potassium allows plants to survive in cold weather and sustain productivity during drought. It is involved in many metabolic processes in the plant. There is a very low environmental risk with K applications. The major inefficient use of K is a phenomenon called “luxury consumption,” in which forage crops take up more K than required for optimum growth. To avoid this, K should be applied in two or more split applications during the hay season. The environmental risk posed by K is low, but care must be taken to ensure it is used efficiently.
Q: Any final thoughts?
A: Yes, fertilizer can be expensive, but it’s still a bargain when compared to dragging down yield and the cost of renovating perennial forage stands. Proper plant food applications will pay off in extra forage and feed for your livestock.
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