By Nick Dunn
According to the 2006 Agricultural Profile, in Flagstaff County there are more than 1,000,000 acres of farmland, 250,000 acres of them are pasture or hay land. Of that 250,000 pasture acres, it is estimated that 100,000 acres are tame or seeded, and 150,000 acres are natural. These lands produce high-quality forage for our livestock producers and maintaining these lands is predominantly crucial to their operations in beef production as most of their cattle feed is forage based. When pastures are seeded, they are typically forgotten about, and over time we have seen pasture plant stands and quality decrease, affecting livestock producers’ bottom line. Ultimately rainfall and fertilization are the main dictators of how well a pasture is going to perform in a season. We have seen depleting growth within our pastures as we have been experiencing drought-like conditions and high temperatures that have burnt both our seeded and natural pastures.
Pasture management can be very complicated and can change over time according to the conditions. It is important that landowners closely monitor their pastures to help them make timely decisions when needed. Some of the best management practices that have been set to the side are weed and brush control, fertilization, and other mechanical practices. Controlling weed and brush within pastures is crucial to promote the growth of the native forages and to prevent unwanted vegetation from establishing. Some of the noxious weeds within pastures are poisonous to livestock and landowners are legally obligated to control them. When legumes are present and needed, producers will often have to sacrifice areas to control certain weed infestations with selective herbicides and spot spraying. Like every weed problem, the more it is neglected the greater the infestation and cost will be to control it. Flagstaff County has a Pesticide Vendor Registration with the Province of Alberta and carries range and pasture products to sell to landowners on a cost-recovery basis. You can also find these herbicides at selected retailers throughout the County.
Fertilization is also an important part of pasture maintenance and soil testing will help identify deficiencies that are within the soil. A common practice at a minimum is to broadcast dry urea in the fall or early spring. Soil testing is always recommended prior to application.
Other maintenance strategies include mechanical practices such as investing in the land and infrastructure to help with rotational grazing. Grazing the land too hard will deplete forages and legumes to a point where you might have to reseed much earlier than expected. Optimizing pasture utilization and cattle management is crucial to conserve the pastureland.
Sometimes our pastures have reached the end of their life cycle and it becomes necessary to undertake a more extensive rejuvenation process, including re-seeding with a forage blend. This is particularly the case when pastures have become severely degraded or overgrazed, resulting in poor forage quality and consistently reduced growth and vegetation. During this time, we often start to see weed infestations starting to take over the land and grass weaning down. Older pastures usually have high compaction, which decreases their ability to take on and retain soil moisture, leading to low productivity. Some producers or landowners will break the ground up and plant annual crops for a couple years. This process will rejuvenate soil quality by breaking up hardpan layers, decreasing compaction, weed and brush control and increasing organic material. After 2-3 years of implementing annual crops, producers will then select the appropriate forage species that will be best suited for their land and livestock nutritional needs.
It is important that we do not sideline the maintenance of pastures. Neglected pastures will end up costing producers more by increasing the cost of rejuvenation. It is important that we monitor the conditions of the pasture throughout the year as they do change, address issues promptly and stay informed about best management practices.
Nick Dunn is Flagstaff County’s Agricultural Fieldman. He can be reached via email at: email@example.com or by phone at: 780-384-4138.