What advice can you give on using liquid fertilizer to increase hay quality and volume?
Answer: Early applications of inorganic nitrogen can increase first cutting yields if available soil phosphorus and potassium levels are adequate. This is a quick-fix solution that has historically bypassed the soil food web and has generally resulted in reduced soil health through mining. Organic farmers are limited to fertilizers that are organic, and these need microbial activity to mineralize the N and make it available to the plants.
If you’re going to have to spend a lot of money to improve your soils, you have several options: the input method outlined by Fertrell, which is surely better for the soil than using inorganic fertilizers, or a method that adds biological diversity and changes the system over time. A third option would be to apply some needed fertilizers this year, as well as compost and/or manure, and work to incorporate cover crops into the system, and graze them. This is the option I lean toward. Compost is a great way to get the biology going in your pasture soils. Check out this link for a research study that showed revitalization within the first year, when coupled with managed grazing:
Think about your production system and what you want to get out of it. Hay production seriously mines the soil and removes nutrients that never get replaced unless you buy expensive inputs. Grazing, however, is less extractive when managed right, and the benefits, when diverse cover crops are used, builds the soil over time. If hay production is your goal, I recommend rotating hayfields every other year into grazing, as well as cover crops to build soil fertility and resilience.
Think about the resources you have or need to get cover crops established. Do you have access to the necessary machinery to till the soil, incorporate aragonite and manure, and plant a diverse cover crop? Can you put enough animals on the pastures to efficiently graze the fields? Is your fencing up to par? Can you use temporary fencing to divide the fields and rotate animals based on plant recovery time?
You should do an economic analysis of the two options. You know the costs of the fertilizers, so you can add to that the cost of application and custom harvesting. Compare this to several probable hay yields, say 1.5, 2, and 2.5 tons/ac and see where your break-even point lies.
Then, assess your costs for cover crops and grazing. Get costs for tillage, seeds, lime, planting, any fencing you’ll need, as well as the cost of animals. Do an economic projection of costs vs. animals sold and hay produced over the next three to five years as the soil heals itself.
These are not easy questions, and it will take some resources to get it done. You can either spend the money on the tools for cover crops and grazing, or for adding fertilizers.
You can certainly get three tons to the acre of hay yield, but only once your soils are healthy and productive. I am not sure it’s something you can do this year. This just may be a decision year for you – reviewing your goals and determining the resources you need to accomplish them. That and focusing on building soil health.
If you choose to use cover crops this year, ATTRA can help you with selecting species and timing of plowing and seeding. Correcting soil deficiencies this summer would likely be needed as well to get the system primed, using some of the suggestions that Dean laid out for you. The pH should be at around 6.5, and adequate P for legume proliferation would be helpful.
Grazing the cover crops can be an important way to get carbon into the soil and add biology. Cattle tramp uneaten plants into the soil, feeding carbon to the microorganisms. You will need enough animals, enough density, to make this happen. How many cows do you currently have? Can you get enough animals on the land? Assuming you have 100 acres of grazing land, with an average hay yield of one ton per acre, we can assume you can have a stocking rate of around 30 cows if you take half and leave half of the forage. This is also assuming that you rotate the cattle, giving the pastures at least 30 days of rest between each grazing event, and have adequate residual and good plant regrowth. This is a rough estimate, since I have not evaluated your pastures.
Some of the questions you will need to answer in order to refine the system include:
• What is the average mature weight of the cows?
• When do you calve? Calving later, when the grass is lush, with medium-frame cows gives you smaller calves to sell at a higher price per pound, more pounds of calves to the acre, and, therefore, more dollars of gross per acre because you have figured out a way to feed cows into the winter with a lot less hay.
• How much hay do you feed a year? Can you just buy hay and graze all your pastureland? This can work if you stockpile forage and graze further into the winter. You can seriously reduce your costs by making your grazing season longer.
• Do you have a realistic figure for how much the hay is costing you, including depreciation on any haying equipment? You should look at your whole operation and see where your money is going. You will be able to reduce a lot of hay expense by calving later when the grass is lush and grazing stockpiled hay through the winter.
Haying has two big drawbacks:
• True cost is way more than we realize.
• It does not allow any soil regeneration, only degradation, which adds to your cost.
I know it seems daunting to make the shift (including the cow size and numbers), and I would not recommend it be done all at once. If the shift is made, it has to be done in increments and with a thorough cash-flow examination.
I recommend taking a Haney or Cornell Soil Health test this year, before doing anything else. Take a look at the following websites:
Then consider transitioning to less hay and regenerating your hay fields with covers. Shoot for 15 to 20 percent of the hay fields a year in cover crops, and more if you can afford it.
You can set back perennial fields prior to no-tilling cover crops by grazing them very tight, but it may require tillage, especially if you’re thinking about summer annual cover crops like sorghum-sudan. The problem with trying to incorporate a cover into an existing pasture can be competition. You will have to experiment. Follow the summer season with a fall cover of rye and perhaps a brassica and maybe a fall legume or two that will grow and then can be terminated by grazing the next spring. Graze it and trample two-thirds, and graze one-third. Put that carbon back into the soil. If you can no-till a full season cover in the next spring, super. If not, till it and plant it with an annual cover crop. You will have to get big seeded legumes such as peas into the ground an inch deep. There has been a lot of success with just planting everything an inch deep. The small seeded plants like grasses and clovers will piggyback on the big seeded plants and germinate well. Put some warm- season grasses, cool-season grasses, warm-season broadleafs, and cool-season broadleafs in the mix. Shoot for at least six to eight species. Then graze it the same way in early August, trampling two-thirds and grazing one-third. Then try another fall cover like the last one. The next spring, graze it to termination, then plant a diverse species of perennial pasture (grasses and legumes) and allow full recovery after grazing to keep the legumes in. Graze with a decent stocking density so you can distribute urine and manure effectively. In several years, you will see big things happening.
ATTRA specialists can help with cover crop selection.
In the meantime, you may have to fertilize some with Fertrell, and apply compost or manure in order to keep forage production up on the fields that you are not cover cropping. Keep an eye on economics. When the soil heath tests indicate the pastures are of decent organic matter (3% or above) and nutrient cycling abilities, graze them with a stocking density of at least 100,000 pounds of live animals per acre and allow full pasture recovery before the next bite (no more than four days for each grazing event) and wait sufficiently (30 days or so) until pastures are grazed again.
You can find a host of useful resources on the Livestock & Pasture section of the ATTRA website.