January 2015
Farm & Field

Build Your Forage Not Your Weeds

Fertilize the right amounts at the right time for healthy forage and fewer weeds.  

January is normally a good time to sit around the fire and stay warm after the cows have been fed. If you want to get a head start on weed prevention for the following spring, however, January can be a great time to put a plan in place for healthy forage and fewer weeds.

According to Dr. Dennis Hancock, associate professor and State Extension Specialist in forage crops for the University of Georgia, one of the most effective ways to protect your pasture from weeds is to make sure the pasture is not overgrazed.

"Between January and April, your pasture shouldn’t be grazed shorter than three-and-a-half to four inches," Hancock said. "Allowing sunlight into the soil surface signals the weed seeds in the soil that there is a chance for them to grow and be competitive."

Less Pay When You Overgraze

Overgrazing is one of the most common factors in weed growth in pastures. Weed seeds can be easily dispersed by the wind, bird droppings and isolated weeds going to seed and lying dormant in the soil. Once overgrazing takes place, pasture openings in forage provide ideal spots for weeds to take root and become huge problems. This can contribute to the introduction of new weeds in the pastures. If the forage is dense, there are fewer chances for weeds.

  A soil analysis is the first step in weed control. Healthy soil helps forage grow better. Weeds can quickly take over in nutrient-poor soil.

During mid-winter, most of the broadleaf weeds will be small and easier to kill.

"Even light rates of 2, 4-D can kill or largely suppress our major winter and spring weeds such as thistles and buttercups if sprayed when they are small," Hancock explained. "Summer hayfields can also be kept largely free of major annual weeds such as crabgrass and pigweed if pre-emergent herbicides such as Prowl H20 are applied before the soil temperature gets above 55 degrees."

Strengthen Your Soil

For the cost of a bag of fertilizer, you can send a soil sample to your lab and determine exactly what nutrients are missing. Weeds thrive in poor soil, and no matter how much you spray, if the soil pH and nutrients aren’t there, your existing grasses and clovers can’t outperform the weeds.

Hancock recommended all producers regularly test their soil.

"After making sure you don’t overgraze your pastures, the next biggest key is making sure the soil fertility is where it needs to be by starting with a soil test."

We often overlook this most basic step, but without healthy soil, cattle forage just can’t perform well enough to keep up with grazing and weed competition.

Plant Seeds to Reduce the Weeds

Starting in January, you can put weed control forage to work on your farm through "frost seeding."

Planting clovers with grasses not only works well as companion crops but the dense forage keeps sunlight off the bare ground helping to prevent weeds.  

"The only forages that should be sown in January and February are clovers," Hancock said. "With the ‘frost seeding’ technique, you can broadcast seed, and the freezing and thawing action of the soil during February and March will draw the seed into good contact with the soil."

Some clovers do better than others when planting during the dead of winter.

"The best clover choices to use for perennial pastures (fescue and Bermudagrass) are white clover and red clover," Hancock added. "Annual clovers can also be established this way, but it will delay their development and reduce their total productivity."

Hay Feeding Time

Once the last round bale of hay has been fed in a ring, it can be a frustrating experience to see all the forage turned into a muddy wasteland due to cattle traffic around feeding areas. These areas are ideal for weed growth the following spring. Instead of just letting any volunteer weed grow up in these areas, these can be ideal areas for planting cover crops such as clover for the upcoming spring.

Any positive forage that is growing can decrease the chances of weeds taking over the bare spots. Timing is the key in getting the forage growing before the weeds. Make sure in these areas, the soil nutrients are available for positive forage growth.

Mistakes to Avoid

It’s inevitable that weeds will appear in your pastures, but the right control techniques can keep you one step ahead. Hancock said that some of the biggest mistakes producers make with weed and forage management can be corrected.

"Grazing too close, improperly timed herbicide application and failure to fertilize the right amounts at the right time are the most common forage management mistakes," Hancock concluded. "In the prevention of weeds, you can use clovers to fill in holes in the stand much more appropriately than leaving it for the weeds to act upon."

If you put your weed management plan into place this January, you might be able to spend more time this spring and summer on managing your forage instead of eradicating problem weeds. As long as there are seeds and soil, there will be weeds, but the weeds can be kept under control. This January, break away from the fireplace to prepare your forage for warm weather growth without the weeds, and visit your local Co-op for products to put your plan into place.

John Howle is a freelance writer from Heflin.