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Pasture and forage miniute

Megan Taylor and Ben Beckman
Nebraska Extension

FERTILIZING PASTURE AND HAY GROUND

Any farmer worth their salt knows the importance of fertilizing a crop for optimal production. Often, this common knowledge stops at row crops or high value hay like alfalfa. Could a look at your fertility improve pasture and grass hay production next year?

Soil sampling now, before the ground freezes can help with planning this winter and give time to develop a fertility plan if our soil tests show fertilizer is needed. Hay ground should be the first location to consider testing, as plant material is constantly harvested and moved to another location, slowly depleting of the major nutrients needed for plant growth.

Two other factors to consider are weed control and available moisture during the growing season. Pastures that are weedy may benefit more by addressing grazing practices and controlling weeds rather than fertility. In these situations, additional nutrients are used by the weeds and can make matters worse.

When it comes to production, especially for native grass hay and pastures, moisture is the most limiting factor, not fertility. You can apply all the fertilizer in the world, but doing so in a drought won’t help plants grow. Fertilizer applications on dry land areas, especially for nitrogen, should be based on expected moisture.

In Nebraska, the main fertility focus should look at the primarily at phosphorus and potassium. In areas of the state with sandy, low organic soils, sulfur should also be included. Finally, keep an eye on soil pH. Differences in soil pH play a big role in nutrient availability. In pastures, nitrogen is nearly always used in the year it is applied. However, other nutrients can remain for a few years between applications, so a 2 or 3 year testing rotation is often enough.

ALFLAFA SOIL SAMPLING

Did your alfalfa not yield what you were expecting this year? Well fall is the perfect time to pull soil samples and see what’s going on underground.

Soil fertility is key to maintaining yield and alfalfa fields should ideally be sampled each year to check soil pH, potassium, and phosphorous levels across all soil textures. Note, if your field is sandy, eroded, or highly weathered, you may want to test for sulfur as well. It is important to remember that compared to row crop ground or grass hay, nitrate-nitrogen is not a concern since alfalfa can fix atmospheric nitrogen. However, digging a few plants up and checking nodulation will provide some insight to plant/soil health as well.

To collect soil samples this fall, you will need to collect soil cores to 8 inches, or if the field was previously sampled to 6 inches stay with the historic depth for comparison. It is very important to be at an accurate depth, because values change the deeper or shallower we go in the profile. You can use a file or a sharpie marker to measure 8 inches on your soil probe to make it easier, when pulling cores.

When sampling there are a few ways you can decide to pull the cores: by soil type, grid, or representative samples for every 40 acres. For alfalfa fields by soil type or representative samples for every 40 acres would be the most cost-effective choices. You will need to pull 10 to 15 random soil cores across your soil type or 40 acre area to be represented. Those soil cores need to be mixed together in a plastic bucket. From there, take about a pint of soil and place in a labelled bag to be analyzed. Repeat this process across the field for every 40 acres or by the soil types in your field and then package for submission.

Once you have your results reach out to your extension educator, fertilizer dealer, or agronomist for more information to help build a profitable alfalfa program.


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