Even though very little growth is occurring in pastures and hayfields across the state, late winter and early spring are critical times for the productivity of these fields says Dr. Gary Bates, director of the University of Tennessee Beef and Forage Center. “If the proper practices are followed, many problems can be avoided, and forage production for the year can be increased,” he said.
Listed below are some pasture management practices Bates recommends that livestock producers across the state add to their “to do” lists in February and March:
Take a soil test and fertilize accordingly. “We often shortchange our pastures when it comes to fertilizer. And if we do fertilize, it may be with something like 19-19-19, without knowing if this is meeting the requirements for adequate pasture growth or not,” said Bates. Now is the time to take a soil test in order to determine the fertilizer requirements of the pasture. Use the results to get a fertilizer mixed that will provide optimum growth of the pasture when it needs to be fertilized in early March. Visit the UT Soil, Plant and Pest Center website for instructions regarding testing the soil on your property: http://soilplantandpest.utk.edu/
Control buttercup and thistle. These two weeds have become a big problem across the state says the forage expert. “The good thing is that they are both relatively easy to control. The bad thing is that it is hard to remember to do it. Now though late March is the time to spray these weeds. After three days in which the high temperature reaches 60 degrees, apply 2 pints per acre of 2,4-D ester per acre,” Bates said. He adds that this rate of 2,4-D will not kill established white clover. “If clover is not present, and you have buckhorn or broadleaf plantain, use 4 pints/acre,” he said.  As always, Bates recommends producers read and follow all label instructions. “Finally, be sure to spray the weeds before you see any blooms. If you delay until April, you will be disappointed in the results,” said Bates.
Seed red and white clover into pastures.  Bates recommends adding clovers to pastures as they can help productivity in several ways. “First, they decrease the nitrogen fertilizer requirement for pastures, since they take nitrogen from the atmosphere and use it. Second, they improve the protein and energy content of the forage the cattle will be consuming,” Bate explained. He also says some clovers will lengthen the grazing season of a pasture.

Getting clovers into pastures involves three main steps:
1.      Select the proper fields. “You should want clovers in all the pastures, but only seed into fields where the pasture has been grazed down to less than 2 inches,” said Bates. “A high stubble height can reduce establishment. Also, don’t seed into a field that has been sprayed with 2,4-D for buttercup control within the previous 6 weeks. The residual activity of the herbicide will decrease seed germination,” he added. He also says you should not apply nitrogen fertilizer to the fields that will be seeded with clovers.
2.      Use the proper seeding rate. White clover, red clover, and annual lespedeza are the best species to use. “Seed 2 lb per acre of white clover, 4 lb per acre of red clover, and on hillsides include 8 lb per acre of annual lespedeza,” Bates recommends. “With white clover, ladino white clover varieties have worked well. A couple of new intermediate white clover varieties named ‘Durana’ and Patriot’ are available. These varieties have shown to be more persistent in pastures than the ladino varieties,” he said.
3.      Plant the proper depth.  Clover seed is very small, so placing the seed too deep can cause poor emergence and establishment.  “If the planting is done the last two weeks of February, then broadcast the seed and let the cattle trample it in for three to four days. The trampling, plus any freezing and thawing of the soil, will place the seed in contact with the soil without being too deep. If the seeding is done in March, after the tall fescue has begun to grow, a no-till drill should be used. Place the seed no more than 1/4 inch deep,” he said.
Following these recommendations will improve the quality and production from your pastures. This will improve the performance of grazing cattle. It is important to put these practices on your calendar as a reminder to do them this time of year, Bates said.
For more information about forages and pasture management, contact your local county UT Extension office or visit the UT Forage website: http://forages.tennessee.edu/

Dr. Gary Bates, UT Beef and Forage Center, 865-974-7324, gbates@utk.edu