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How do I convert some of my land into pasture?


As you plan your new pasture, remember that fallow land is not necessarily going to be good pasture land. Just because it’s covered in grass doesn’t mean it’s a productive pasture capable of meeting your livestock’s nutritional needs. Just as you would with any other field, you’ll need to work on your soil and forage crops. The pasture you plant will need enough nutritional density to support livestock health.

Start with a soil test. Many producers don’t think to test pasture soil. However, these test results can inform your decisions and drastically improve your pasture’s success. To unlock the soil’s wealth of resources, you need a balanced pH. If the soil is too acidic or basic, many minerals and nutrients will become unavailable to grazing livestock. After the soil’s pH has been addressed, you can begin to work on the other parts of soil health.

If your land has been fallow for some time, it may be suffering from many different issues: soil deficiencies, too much thatch, invasive or persistent species that need management, or a lack of palatable and nutritionally dense species. Invite expertise from other graziers and experts. You might just need to do some clipping and inter-seeding to gain a production pasture. However, fields in really bad shape might require that you turn the soil to incorporate organic matter and get a fresh start with a new planting. It might even be worthwhile to plan a year of cover cropping to manage deficiencies or problem species (like continually clipping a sorghum sudangrass crop to manage a thistle problem).

Land previously used for production may have been tested and managed better for crops. Focus on making sure that the soil is ready and work with someone to select the best pasture species for your soil, climate, management, and livestock. With the “clean slate” of a productive field, your pasture planting could be just about anything. Having a second (or third) opinion about which species might best suit your situation can be very valuable. Mixing grasses, legumes, and forbes can add resilience and create palatable options for different livestock species.

When it comes to selecting and purchasing seed, connect with local pasture-based organizations. Groups like Pheasants Forever and US Fish & Wildlife regularly work with private landowners to connect them with local resources supporting grassland development. Resource Conservation and Development (RC&D), Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), and even local seed houses can help you connect with experts to select the right plants for your needs. It’s important to consider your soil type, what varieties are best suited to the local climate, management plans, livestock species, and grazing density.

There may also be programs available to cost-share seed used to convert land into permanent pasture. Many of these programs will require a signed contract, but they can be valuable resources if you’re already planning to graze.

In creating a new pasture, you’ll have some big decisions to make about infrastructure. There are many different options available for fencing and setting up watering systems. Your plan will depend on your livestock species, management plans, and budget.

Irrigation systems can be as simple as plastic tubing, a few fittings, and a float valve if the field has proximity to a well, and the system’s pressure won’t be overtaxed. However, if water sources are distant or the demands will be higher, the design might take more creativity. Year-round management in a cold climate also requires careful planning. Look at several different systems to develop one suited to your operation.

Consider how your fencing will affect your management of the livestock and the land. You might want to have one large pasture or several smaller paddocks. Make sure that permanent fences and gate placements don’t become problematic over time. Think about your water sources, the number of management groups you’ll have, what fence materials are best, and how your fencing might affect your options in years of drought or heavy rainfall.

You might want to start with mobile fencing or semi-permanent options while you gain a better understanding of what your grazing enterprise will look like. As with planting, financial support may be available for fencing infrastructure. Reimbursements and grazing plans may be available to you through NRCS and County Conservation offices with a grazing contract.

There are a lot of organizations that want to see graziers succeed. Grants, equipment loans, operating loans, cost shares, and expert support are available to help you create your new pasture. Contact your local FSA office about operating loans, NRCS about their EQIP and CSP programs, County Conservation, and local grazing organizations like RC&D about species selection and management plans.

Posted: Apr 2016
Answer By: Lauren Langworthy