Pasture 101 - a primer on our area's other kind of growth

November 14, 2006|by JEFF SEMLER

We have all heard the clichs about pasture, "Turn grass into gold" or "Turning pasture into profits."

Whether you have one horse or 100 dairy cows, pasture can cut your feed costs.

Contrary to popular belief, a horse like most of those in Washington County that is not a work animal, can be maintained nutritionally exclusively on good pasture most of the year.

Beef cattle, dairy cattle, sheep and goats are also designed to eat pasture and with the exception of high-producing dairy cows, all can thrive on a pasture diet.

The key here is good pasture.

Pasture management along with animal husbandry is making a comeback locally and nationwide.

Many folks used to use pasture as exercise lots for their animals while others would practice what I would call survivor pasture management.


This is a practice where people turn their animals out into a large area in the spring and collect the survivors in the fall.

So let's start with pasture. What exactly is it?

A pasture is a living thing and its foundation is the soil under the surface. Soil is a mixture of minerals, organic matter, insects, worms and other microorganisms.

The first step in pasture management then is taking a soil test.

This entails walking about your pastures with a five-gallon bucket with either a soil probe or a shovel. Take random samples of soil at a depth of approximately eight inches.

When you have a fair number of samples (the number will depend on the size of the pasture), mix them in the bucket and take a grab sample to send to the testing lab.

The three major nutrients contained in any soil test recommendation will be N-P-K or Nitrogen-Phosphors-Potash or Potassium.

The other major portion of the report is pH. This will be your liming recommendation. pH is important because when pH is too low, many nutrients are tied up and not available to the plants.

The next portion of the pasture to look at is the plants.

Most permanent pastures in our area will be cool season grasses. Those common species are orchardgrass, bluegrass, fescue, timothy and bromegrass. Pastures are usually a mixture of these grasses with a dose of legumes such as clover or alfalfa.

Weed control is often a question and the best defense for weeds is a healthy stand of grass. Weeds are plants of opportunity and will take hold in bare ground or overgrazed pastures.

Rotation, clipping and fertility are keys to a healthy pasture and reduced weed pressure. Yes, there are times when herbicides may be needed.

My space does not allow me to go into greater depth on this subject.

Thus, I invite you to register for Pasture 101 on Nov. 30 at the Extension office beginning at 7 p.m. Pre-registration by calling the Extension office is necessary so we can have enough handouts.

I hope you will plan to join us.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by e-mail at

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