A sustainable pasture depends on proper management of both the fertility needs of the soil and good management of grazing animals. One of the most critical periods is fall. Management decisions made at this time can have a strong effect on the plant’s ability to overwinter, which then determines when new growth begins in the spring and how much total growth will be produced over the entire season.
Overgrazing of pastures in the fall is one of the most damaging think you can do to help support to the root system’s ability to rebuild and the formation of new grass shoots for spring growth. This is also a time when plant root systems are rebuilding from summer shedding. Growing points are developing in the fall to provide next spring’s growth. These young grass shoots, or tillers, are much like babies. Both need a steady supply of nutrients and protection from overgrazing. In the fall, nutrients are supplied from the previous season’s tillers. If pastures are grazed or mowed lower than 3-4 inches in the fall, these reserves are reduced and the new tillers are starved. Usually root formation will slow or stop and the tillers will grow slower and have fewer roots in the next spring.
Allowing animals to graze throughout the fall without pasture management results in increased bare areas that are prone to the encroachment of weeds. Keeping animals off wet pastures is another way to keep pastures healthy. Livestock on wet pastures kill grass, compact soils and create mud. A better idea is to create a sacrifice area for your livestock during the winter. Create an enclosure such as a paddock or pen during wet months, thereby sacrificing a small portion of your pasture for the benefit of the remaining pasture. Installing mud-free footing, e.g. sand or gravel, in your sacrifice area will keep your animals happier and healthier than standing in mud. Be sure to remove manure every 1-3 days to keep footing materials from becoming contaminated.
Fall is also a great time to take soil samples to test the fertility of the pasture soil. Soil test should be taken during the same month each month for consistency. Early fall is also a good time to apply nutrients based on your soil test. Manure or other sources of nitrogen can be applied. But take care not to apply too much nitrogen – it can cause grass to grow too vigorously in the fall, making them more susceptible to winter damage.
Post summer is a tough time to turn horses out on pasture if don’t want to have to have to renovate in the spring. But a few simple adjustments in the fall can keep your pastures lush and healthy for next spring.