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Pasture Resources

Cattle in BeltsvillePasture is a land use type having vegetation cover comprised primarily of introduced or enhanced native forage species that is used for livestock grazing. Pasture receives periodic renovation and cultural treatments such as tillage, fertilization, mowing, weed control, and may be irrigated.  Pasture vegetation can consist of grasses, legumes, other forbs, shrubs or a mixture. Pasture differs from range in that it primarily produces vegetation that has initially been planted to provide preferred forage for grazing livestock.  The majority of these forages are introduced, having originally come from areas in other continents.  Most are now naturalized and are vital components of  pasture based grazing systems.  Some common introduced forage species are tall fescue, orchard grass, red and white clover, and bermuda grass.   Some cropland and  pasture land has been converted to native warm season grasses such as switchgrass, bluestems, indiangrass, and gamagrass. 

Pasture lands are found in all states of the United Stated and its territories.  These lands comprise about 6%, or 119 million acres, of the contiguous 48 U. S. states.

Pasture lands provide many benefits other than forage for livestock.  Wildlife use pasture as shelter and for food sources.  Well managed pasture captures rainwater that is slowly infiltrated into the soil which helps recharge groundwater.  Many small pasture livestock operations are near urban areas providing vistas for everyone to enjoy.  Pasture is the basis of any livestock operation that is truly sustainable. It is especially important as livestock grazers continues to experience extraordinarily high fuel and other input costs.

Pasture Management

Cool season forages, which are recommended and established on much of the pasture land in the United States, rarely persists as a single species in pastures.  Due to climate variation and pasture management, forage species composition often is in flux.  The duration and number of grazing livestock significantly influences the persistence of one species over another.   The introduction of other species can be beneficial as diversity can bring other nutritious sources of food for livestock.  However, weed species can encroach and out compete desired forages.  Legumes are seeded or are naturally established in most cool season pasture system.  When managed properly, legumes provide needed nitrogen for grasses and protein for livestock.  Warm season grasses are established for pastures in areas of the country where it is too hot for cool season grasses, where soils have less water holding capacity, or to fill a summer void when cool season grasses are less productive.   Most pasture land consists of perennial grasses and legumes, but also annual grasses are often planted to achieve maximum yield for that season.     To maximize production, fertility needs must also be met.  Many pastures in the US are not meeting their production potential due to low fertility status.

Economics of Winter Grazing

With the continuing volatility of energy costs, livestock producers are looking for ways to save on inputs. Stockpiling pasture forage to extend the grazing season and strip grazing to improve forage utilization offer economic and environmental benefits. Play this video to learn more about winter grazing.

Technical Applications

Developing Pasture State Interpretations (National Bulletin):

Pasture grazing cattlePasture management information (adapted forage species, estimated production, growth curves, and management interpretations) will be incorporated into ecological site descriptions as converted ecological states. Pasture state interpretations provide a soil and plant basis for conservation planning on livestock operations where forage crops are grown.

 

A well-managed pasture is one whose productivity (plant and animal) is optimized while doing no harm to soil, water, and air quality. The Guide to Pasture Condition Scoring provides a systematic way to check how well a pasture is managed. If the pasture is located on the proper site and well managed, it will have a good to excellent overall pasture condition score. By rating key indicators and causative factors common to all pastures, pasture condition can be evaluated and the primary reasons for a low condition score identified.  A low pasture condition can lead to one or more pasture resource concerns such as poor plant growth, weedy species invasion, poor animal performance, visible soil loss, increased runoff, and impaired water quality.

Pasture condition scoring, to be most useful, should occur several times a year during key critical management periods throughout the grazing season. Scoring should be performed:

  •  At the start before placing livestock on pasture
  •  At peak forage supply periods
  •  At low forage supply periods
  •  As plant stress appears
  •  Near the end of the grazing season to help decide when to remove livestock

In addition, pastures used for year-round grazing benefit from pasture condition scoring:

  •  Going into the winter season
  •  Late in winter
  •  During thaws or wet periods

Pasture condition scoring can be useful in deciding when to move livestock or planning other management actions. It sorts out which improvements are most likely to enhance pasture condition or livestock performance. Pasture condition scoring involves the visual evaluation of 10 indicators, which rate pasture condition. A  Pasture Condition Score Sheet is used in the evaluation process.  The Score Sheet lists the 10 indicators with five descriptive conditions, ranging from lowest (1) to highest (5). This objectively ranks the extent of any problems and helps sort out the likely causes.  Each indicator is evaluated separately. They may be combined into an overall score for the pasture unit or left as an individual score and compared with the other nine indicators. Indicators receiving the lowest scores can be targeted for corrective action as warranted. The plant vigor indicator can be analyzed further by rating six factors that affect plant vigor . As one or more erosion indicators may exist on a site, they are split into four types: sheet and rill, gully, stream bank or shoreline, and wind.

Determining Indicators of Pasture Health (National Bulletin)

Interpreting Indicators of Rangeland Health (now updated Pellant et al. 2020 version V) has long been used in assessing rangeland health. A similar ecological approach using a standardized assessment protocol on pastureland is needed to: 1) provide a consistent science for grazing lands based on the dynamics of the Ecological Site; 2) differentiate and evaluate basic ecosystem attributes (biotic integrity, soil/site stability, and hydrologic function); and 3) establish a non-biased approach based on the unique individual site environmental potentials and landowner management objectives. The Forage Suitability (FSG) concept is now considered obsolete and “Converted Ecological States” (pasture, cropland, agroforestry, orchards) are now being developed and correlated with an ecological site. The converted pasture state is now represented in the ESD State and Transition Model diagram. The narrative for converted pasture states can provide pertinent information relative to pasture health indicators.