Managing Forage Grasses

Farmers have been growing grasses for so long you’d think by now we’d have all the answers. But new varieties are released, there’s recent interest in meadow fescue, and research on fertilizing grasses continues to influence recommendations. (One result of these changes: job security for those of us advising farmers!) Here are a few suggestions — some old, some new — in getting the most from your grass fields.

Apply nitrogen soon after grass breaks dormancy. Your N rate depends on manuring history, grass species and density of stand, but on fields with a good stand of a responsive species apply 90- 100 lbs./acre of actual N, equal to about 200 lbs. of urea or 300 lbs. of UAN. The N in manure is as good as fertilizer N but you may not want to take the time this spring or risk cutting up soft fields. Probably better to delay manure application until after first cut or when fields have firmed up.

Don’t overdo N following first cut. Too much N can reduce tillering, especially in perennial ryegrass and tall fescue and probably in meadow fescue as well. A high rate of N fertilizer right after harvest suppresses carbohydrates in the tillers. This means fewer new tillers and a decline in tiller density, leading to more gaps in the stand and more places for weed seeds to germinate. Apply 50-60 lbs. N/acre between cuts on your best grass stands, 30-40 lbs./acre on the rest. A similar rate of N (or manure) in August will boost plant carbohydrate levels and should result in higher yields the following spring. Manure is A-OK but rely on manure analysis to determine the application rate.

Grass will do well with a soil pH of 6.2 but don’t let pH levels get too low. This is especially important if you’ll rotate the field to another crop in a year or two. Nitrogen fertilizer is acidifying while cow manure is almost neutral, so soil pH is influenced by both N rate and source.

For first cut, “When you see the head the quality is dead.” Harvest at the boot stage for “milk cow quality” forage. Don’t wait for heading for second and later cuts; mow whenever you decide there’s enough forage to make it worth the trip with the mower or mowerconditioner.

 

Ev Thomas has worked as an agronomist in Northern NY state for 42 years, first with Cornell University Cooperative Extension, then with the William H. Miner Agricultural Research Institute in Chazy, NY, including managing its 680-acre crop operation. He’s now semi-retired but still works part-time for Miner Institute, including writing/editing its Farm Report newsletter. 

 
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