If you are raising cattle, healthy pastures are an asset. As the new owner of historical ranch land, I decided to document the process I went through in kick starting my fields.
Understanding Your Soil
Though you could subjectively declare field management a success by color of your grasses, the absence of weeds, or the elimination of bare spots, you really need more quantifiable measures to determine the health of your pastures. Understanding your soil is critical and fairly easy with modern services and technology. First, you need to understand the type of soil in your fields. Second, you need to take a pH baseline of your fields. Before I describe how to do this, I want to review soil pH.
Soil pH is a range measure that determines the level of acidity or alkalinity in soil. The measure’s range is from 0 to 14. The acidity range is from 0 to 7 and the alkalinity range is from 7 to 14. The midpoint, 7, is considered neutral.
Grasses thrive in a pH range. This range differs depending on the type of grass. If the soil pH is out of range for your grass, your pastures won’t do well and as the grasses can’t take advantage of basic nutrients like those provided by fertilizer.
Knowing your soil’s pH level is critical.
Soil Types And pH
There are a variety of soil types. Common soil descriptors include clay, sand, loam, silt, peat, and chalk. Each soil type will have a natural pH range. Each soil type will also react differently to methods of correcting pH. To learn more about this, read “pH for the Garden” from The University of Vermont Extension.
Taking Soil Samples
Taking soil samples is easy. All you need is a bucket, some sort of digging tool, and some sterile bags. For my samples, I ordered a 25 pack of coffee bags from Amazon, a grass plugging tool, and plastic bucket.
In order to get a good sample mix, you’ll want to extract approximately one 6 oz sample per acre. If you block your fields into 20 acre sections and extracted soil from about 4″ to 6″ under the existing grass. Then, mix the soil in the bucket and pull out enough to fill the tie bag 1/2 to 3/4 full.
After you have your soil samples ready to go, you’ll want to send these to your county or state Ag Extension Office so they can process them and get you your results.
Building A Nutrient Plan
Your soil analysis will generally provide you a detailed report of nutrient measures and soil pH. In many cases, they will provide a recommendation for correcting soil deficiencies. However, before declaring the recommendations in this report as your final plan, it is worth while to get a local opinion.
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has an office assigned to every county in your state. In many cases, the National Resource Conservation Service will be co-located with this office. The NRCS is a free service that is staffed with university educated agricultural specialist who are very familiar with local soils, vegetation, and more. It is worth your while to have them review your soil reports and weigh in on a recommendation. In my case they made a site visit to asses my grasses which helped to refine the nutrient plan.
A proper nutrient plan will consist of both a pH correction strategy as well as a custom fertilizer mix. The pH portion of the plan is your first objective as it should be completed in the winter months prior to green up.
If your soil analysis indicates a pH imbalance, you will want to address this before proceeding to fertilizers. If you don’t, you’ll be wasting your money on fertilization as your grasses won’t be able to take advantage of them.
In many parts of Texas, we fight acidity. One of the most effective way to combat acidic soils is to introduce agricultural grade lime to your pastures prior to green up. This is a tricky task on a couple of fronts.
Finding a source for good, powder form lime isn’t easy in all geographies. In the State of Texas, for example, the lime you really want comes from central Texas and isn’t always available at local feed co-ops. Second, the lime needs to be transported to your property in a full size semi which requires you to have roads and bridges that will support a 40 to 60 ton semi. Last, you’ll need a good flat place for the semi to unload as the trailer gets lifted a couple stories in the air and it can literally tip over during this activity.
Once you have your lime on site, you’ll either need a spreader or contract someone to come spread it for you. If you plan on spreading powered lime on your own, you’ll need a spreader with a lime agitator. If you plan on using a buggy or other device on loan from your co-op, you can save yourself equipment money. However, there are providers who use specialized lime spreading trucks who are really fast and cost effective. If you go this route, you’ll want to ensure that your pastures are dry and will support the weight of a two wheel drive truck trouncing around in them. Check your local co-op for such providers and work off state provided ag service price sheets. In our case, $10 an acre was an easy business decision.
Though you can always fill up your truck bed and use shovels to throw lime from the back of your vehicle, lime is both critical to soil quality and expensive. You’d be better served to get a buggy on loan or find a provider with a lime spreader.
Fertilization and Over-seeding
After you have corrected your soil pH and your grasses have greened up, you should proceed onto the fertilization portion of your plan. If you are fighting bare spots, many grasses like bermuda will allow for over-seeding in the same step as fertilization. In other words, you can mix grass seed into your fertilizer and knock out two steps with one effort.
If your fields have not been properly maintained, consider breaking your fertilization process into two steps 60 days apart. Trying to make up for years of no management will likely have a better result in two smaller steps. In suggesting this, I’m not saying double the fertilizer quantity. What I’m suggesting is cutting the quantity in half and apply the two halves 60 days apart.
Lime and fertilizer take time to integrate with the soil. At the same time, your grasses will be feeding off the added nutrients. Every geography is going to differ as to when the best time to take follow-up soil samples will be. If you are looking to refine next year’s plan, you’ll want to take a soil sample mid-summer to see how accurate your plan was for the current year. Still, the end game should be next year’s green up so waiting until the fall is probably the best time to retest your soil. If things worked in your favor, your pH balance will be good and you’ll simply need to add nutrients the following year. Again, without that baseline step that I described in the beginning of this post, you’ll be flying blind. I publicly post our soil samples on this website.
In a future post I’ll talk about forage samples so we can examine how healthy the grass in our fields is for our bovine friends who are using it to nourish and grow.