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Now’s time to renovate hayfields, pastures

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By MICHAEL PYLES

The drought of 2010 was extremely hard on Trimble County pastures and hayfields. Now is the optimal time to consider renovating these fields.
To be sure you use legume varieties that will perform well in your area, call the Trimble County Cooperative Extension Service office at (502) 255-7188 for the results of forage variety trials from the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture.
These trials, among others, will help you pick the best varieties for your particular operation.
Determine how you plan to use the forage, and choose accordingly. For instance, alfalfa or red clover usually is best for hay. A red clover/ladino clover combination works well for both hay and pasture. For pasture only, ladino clover, red clover or annual lespedeza work well.
Because legumes need a higher soil pH and more fertilizer than grasses, take a soil test and apply the recommended lime and fertilizer. Don’t add nitrogen during the establishment year, because it will stimulate growth of grass that will compete with seedling legumes for nutrients, moisture and light.
Always use improved certified varieties for better yield and stand persistence. Red-clover variety trials reveal that seeding an improved, certified variety yields 3 tons more dry matter over the life of the stand.
To provide the bacteria needed for nitrogen fixation, mix a high-quality inoculant with seed before planting, or use lime-coated, pre-inoculated seed. Use a sticking agent to be sure the inoculant adheres to the seed.
Make sure the seed falls on bare dirt; then, allow the winter freezing-thawing action to work seed into the soil. This method doesn’t work well with alfalfa.
To improve seed-soil contact, use a disk, a field cultivator or a field tiller to break up soil so the seed have a better chance to germinate and grow. An alternative is to use a no-till renovation seeder.
Broadcast clover seed on the soil surface, or drill them from now until mid-March. After mid-March, drill to improve seed-to-soil contact. Follow recommended seeding rates of 6-12 pounds per acre for red clover and 1-2 pounds an acre for white.
It’s critical to control grass and weed competition. If grass is allowed to grow, it will reduce the light, nutrients and water available to young legume plants. Keep grass short by grazing or mowing until legume plants are 3-4 inches tall, then stop for several weeks so legumes will become well established. Then, mow or graze the field on a schedule to keep legumes in good condition.
In other pastures with less than a 25 percent clover stand, you may want to consider top-dressing 30-40 pounds of nitrogen per acre (70-90 pounds of urea) for faster green-up and early spring grazing.
One Kentucky study showed that 40 pounds/acre of nitrogen applied in mid-March increased tall fescue hay yields by 1.1 tons/acre in mid-May harvest – a 55-pound increase in yield for every 1 pound of added nitrogen.
Another option for grass pastures and hayfields would be to top-dress with 50-60 pounds of nitrogen per acre by mid-March and take a cutting of hay in late April. If good growing conditions continue, apply another top-dress of 40 pounds of nitrogen per acre to get a second cutting of hay in June.

Michael Pyles is Trimble County’s Cooperative Extension agent for agriculture.