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Efficient Use of Pasture Nutrients

Efficient Use of Pasture Nutrients

by Doug Spencer, Rangeland Management Specialist
Natural Resources Conservation Service
Marion, Kansas

High priced fertilizer is a continuing hot topic this year with nitrogen at the time of this article being priced around $0.65 per pound. It is making many producers question whether it’s worth spreading fertilizer on their pastures at these high prices. I will let the economists give you suggestions on that topic. Instead of concentrating on how overpriced fertilizer is and whether it is worth spreading, I would like to concentrate on ways to better manage and utilize the nutrients that are present or needed in your pasture.

Ever forgot to turn on the power take off (PTO) when spreading fertilizer or got lost and skipped or double-applied? In either case, you end up with concentrations of good and poor grass growth. The same thing can happen when grazing except the animal becomes the spreader. Jim Gerrish in his Management-Intensive Grazing book states that over 90 percent of the nutrients that are consumed by grazing animals are deposited back to the soil via feces and urine. He goes on to state that greater travel distances to water and available shade near that water cause animals to deposit about two-thirds of their manure within a few hundred feet of the shade and water source. Because of this, he estimates that only 2-5 percent of the defecations produced by the animals will occur in the productive pasture area. How happy would you be if your hired help emptied the entire fertilizer spreader around the shade and water? Why do we let our livestock get away with it? Finding better ways to distribute this manure (nutrients) is a must for your pocketbook as well as water quality of the pond and stream.

Producers might consider subdividing pastures and adding water developments. Work done at the Forage Systems Research Center in Linneus, Missouri, showed that if cattle, as part of a management intensive grazing system, were kept within 600 to 800 feet of water and shade was not available, 80 to 90 percent of the manure will be returned to the productive pasture area. That is spreading fertilizer without starting the tractor!

Fencing and/or tree removal is another excellent way to get manure distributed away from riparian areas, upland draws, and tree-infested fence rows. If you still need to apply fertilizer to the pasture, you could save some money by not applying fertilizer within one to two hundred feet of your water source and shade due to all the nutrients that are deposited there anyway. Supplemental feed, mineral, and insect control devices can also be used to develop temporary loafing sites where manure will be deposited. These practices are great ways to save money while improving surface water quality by keeping manure concentrations away from streams, ponds, and shade areas. If only manure was gossip. . .it would be spread evenly and everywhere.

If you would like assistance with nutrient and/or pasture management or to learn more about natural resources conservation, contact the NRCS or conservation district office located at your local U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Service Center (listed in the telephone book under United States Government or on the internet at More information is also available on the Kansas Web site at Follow us on Twitter @NRCS_Kansas. USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.

This article is also available in Microsoft Word format.

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