Many pastures and hayfields are dormant during the winter months, but that doesn’t mean they should be neglected. Winter makes an excellent time to assess pastures and hayfields to get a jump-start on forage quality and the ability to survive hot, dry weather during the summer. Fertilizer and lime applications, soil compaction, weeds, and a quick note on overseeding are a few things to consider.
Winter is an excellent time to make fertilizer applications unless applying nitrogen. Nitrogen is highly mobile in the soil and applications are best made when plants are actively growing during the spring or fall.
Other nutrients like phosphorous and potassium are not highly mobile and are best applied in winter months to give them time to break down and become available for the plants. Nutrients can then move into the root zone and be available in the spring when plants begin to resume growth.
Winter can also be a good time to apply lime, because lime requires a series of reactions in the soil before soil pH is reduced. Limed soil improves the viability of the plant, reduces plant stress, and makes for healthier pastures or hayfields. Soil testing should be done to determine what nutrients are needed.
Winter months not only bring cold weather but also wet weather, so it’s important to consider soil compaction. Tractors and other equipment used to make fertilizer and lime applications on saturated ground, as well as hoof pressure, can result in soil compaction. Soil compaction can destroy roots and root growth, and lead to reduced plant growth. Limiting pasture exposure and tractor and equipment movement on saturated ground will help alleviate soil compaction.
Winter weed control should also be taken into consideration. Weeds reduce forage yield by competing with the desired forage and weakening the stand of grass. Most winter weeds germinate and grow in the fall and early spring.
Common winter weeds are Buttercup, Common Chickweed, Curly Dock, Henbit, Wild Garlic or Onion, White Clover, Wild Radish, Ryegrass, Wild Mustard, and Common Dandelion. Identification of the weeds growing in pastures and hayfields is the first step in controlling winter weeds.
Proper timing will also play a role in the control of weeds. October through December is the best time to control winter weeds, but since we have missed that time frame, now would be a good time to scout pastures or hayfields for problematic weeds. You can mark problem areas with a flag or make notes of heavy infestations. During the February to April time frame, use proper herbicides to control winter weeds. Winter weeds are beginning their final growth spurt and it’s important the weeds aren’t allowed to seed. Most importantly, don’t wait too late.
Taylor Chavis is the North Carolina Cooperative Extension livestock agent for Robeson County. She can be reached by calling 910-671-3276, or by email at Taylor_Chavis@ncsu.edu.