Pasture Establishment

— Written By and last updated by Margaret Green

“Still time for Pasture Establishment this Fall”

By:  Martha L. Mobley, Extension Agent, Franklin County

Pastures can be of great value to owners of most animals, especially ruminants and equine. They supply an important source of nutrition, a place to exercise, help control erosion and can be a source of pride and beauty to the owner. It is all about what nature intended, naturally converting sunshine to grass to a source of protein humans can consume. In fact, it would almost be impossible for a livestock producer to remain in the business of animal agriculture without good forages. Feeding hay costs about twice as much for the producer compared to allowing the animal to graze. In our area with years of adequate rainfall, our animals should be grazing all but one or two months out of the year with proper planning and rotational grazing.

A well-managed pasture can supply a high percentage of an animal’s daily nutrient requirements. We all know equine or horses are more detrimental as a close grazer than ruminants, which include cattle and goats.

By following the proper establishment and management practices, one can maximize the nutritional impact of grass and increase the value of pastures. Successful establishment depends on proper fertilization, species and variety selection, seeding date, rate and method and reducing competition. Long-term best management practices are improved grazing plans or rotations, periodic soil testing, annual fertilization, and weed control. The best time of the year in the Piedmont to plant cool season grasses, ie, fescues, orchard grasses, rye grasses, etc. is August 25 – October 25th; the second best time of year to plant cool seasons is February 15 – March 31st. With adequate moisture in the last few weeks, there is still time to get some seed in the ground. Don’t forget to incorporate some type of inculcated legume with the grass seed, such as ladino, red, or alfalfa, which lowers your fertilizer bill by supplying a nitrogen source for the grass.

Starting with a soil test will provide you with research-based recommendations for lime, phosphorus, potassium and other nutrients, except nitrogen. Cooperative Extension has information on how to properly take a soil sample. You should take pasture soil samples for testing every three to four years. For the first time, NCDA & CS will be charging a small fee to analyze samples during the “rush” time of year, November 28th through March 31st with a $4 per sample fee. Other times of the year, there is no charge for submitting a soil sample.

Pasture grasses are different in their tolerance to grazing and traffic. Kentucky bluegrass and Bermuda grass, which form tight sods, are the most tolerant, especially for horse facilities. Orchardgrass is the least tolerant, and tall fescue falls somewhere in between

Competition from weeds has been the downfall of many grass-seeding failures. Suppressing weeds by mowing or light grazing for a few months can help to control weeds in order to establish pastures. Only use herbicides on a newly established pasture as the last resort, because they can potentially cause harm to the seedlings.

Providing proper management will promote vigorous, healthy plant growth and extend a pasture’s productive life.

Divide the pasture acreage into smaller pastures to establish a rotational grazing system. In most cases, rotational grazing is based on two-to-four-week rest periods. Permitting time for forage re-growth and increased plant vigor varies with such factors as the stocking rate, season, rainfall amounts, and forage species that are used. A group of Franklin County grass producers recently visited a profitable, established cattle farm that utilizes MOB grazing which results in using very little hay for feed during the winter months. The producers came away with increased knowledge by actually seeing a Piedmont farm utilizing MOB grazing and how they can apply those practices on their own farms in Franklin County.

Following are other tips that may be used with newly established pastures:

  • When pastures are wet and muddy avoid grazing because animal hooves can be a detriment to both newly seeded and established pastures.
  • Clipping pastures after grazing promotes more uniform, leafy growth, which is more palatable and nutritious than tough, mature forages. Clipping reduces weed competition and eye irritation from mature seed heads, and makes pastures more pleasing to the eye.
  • You should apply nitrogen fertilizer annually to any predominately grass pasture. The amount used should be relative to your yield goal for each pasture.
  • Remember the best pasture weed control is a healthy, thick actively growing stand of grass. Fertilization, especially nitrogen; timely mowing; and good grazing management will help reduce weed infestation.
  • If a pasture is properly fertilized and receives proper grazing management, weeds will not be a prevailing factor. However, if weeds do become a problem, apply the appropriate herbicide to the infested areas. Always read and follow herbicide label recommendations. Some herbicides can carry over in the forage and can damage garden/future growth potential to various sites.

We have several related publications at the Franklin County Cooperative Extension office. Topics include lime and fertilizer recommendations, evaluating fertilizer recommendations, grain and forage crop guide, renovating hay and pasture fields, establishing forage crops, alfalfa, red clover, Orchardgrass, tall fescue, Matua, Tiff and white clover. Call the office, 919-496-3344, or email, for more information.