With continuing dry conditions and the high cost of fertilizer, a Texas Cooperative Extension forage specialist advises producers to proceed cautiously with winter pasture plans this year.

Establishing winter pastures makes economic sense any year. But this year, with dry summer weather resulting in hay shortages, it makes better sense than ever, said Joe Vendramini.

But the success of winter pasture establishment effort depends upon available moisture in the fall, he said, and much of East Texas remains woefully low on moisture with no end in sight.

The recommendation is to seed winter pasture between Sept. 15 and Nov. 15, with early to mid-October as optimum. But the drought and high cost of nitrogen calls for a “wait-and-see-if-it-rains” approach this year, Vendramini said.

“With fertilizer so expensive, it’s dangerous to depend upon a forecast of 30 percent chance for rain,” he said.

Instead, Vendramini recommends producers be poised and ready to go with seeding if they get rain, but to hold off on fertilizing until they get a good stand.

“It’s not a good idea to fertilize with nitrogen at the time of seeding,” Vendramini said. “If, for example, they received as little as a couple of inches of rain in October, producers could plant but wait at least until they were sure they had a good stand before fertilizing.

How much and when to fertilize depends upon the type of winter pasture to be established. And the type of winter pasture depends upon producers’ goals, he said.

Soil pH is another factor. A soil pH of 5.5 is borderline for rye and ryegrass mixture. For most clovers, the requirement is a soil pH of absolutely no lower than 6.0. Arrowleaf clovers require a soil pH of 6.5 or higher.

A standard soil test will tell producers not only their soil pH, but also most soil nutrients.

Producers must also choose whether to go with a small grain/cool season grass mix or a ryegrass/clover winter pasture. For example, for producers who need fall grazing, a typical mix is rye and ryegrass.

Establishing a rye and ryegrass mixture for fall grazing is easier if the producer has access to a grain drill. Otherwise, the establishment process will require four field operations because ryegrass needs to be planted shallower than rye. With high fuel costs, producers may find the four operations just to get the seed in the ground an expensive proposition, Vendramini said.

Without a grain drill, the producer will need to first lightly disk the field, broadcast the rye, disk again, then broadcast the ryegrass.

By far, nitrogen costs will be the limiting factor when it comes to rye/ryegrass pastures, Vendramini said. General recommendations are about 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre for rye/ryegrass mixtures after the first hard freeze, but only if they are sure they have a good stand. Later fertilizations include 50 pounds per acre every six weeks for the remainder of the growing season, for a total of 200 pounds.

But those recommendations are just that, general guidelines. The bottom line, Vendramini said, is to balance how much nitrogen a producer can afford with how much grazing he or she has to have.

“Nitrogen is like gasoline for the car. The more you put on, the further your pasture will go,” he said.

One thing that can be said for sure is half of winter pastures costs will be from nitrogen, Vendramini said. And clover/ryegrass winter pasture will require about half the nitrogen as rye/ryegrass.

For this reason, if producers can do without the fall grazing, a clover and ryegrass might be a better choice this year, he said. The nitrogen recommendation for a clover and ryegrass winter pasture is a single application of 60 to 70 pounds of nitrogen after the first hard freeze.

About 10 types of clover are adapted and available for East Texas producers, but three, arrowleaf, crimson and white clovers, are suited for most situations.

Farmers can use a planter or broadcast the seed. Either way, however, it’s a good idea to mix the clover seed with ryegrass seed for two reasons, Vendramini said. The clover seed is so small that most planters won’t have the correct setting for accurate seeding rates. Also, ryegrass makes a great mix with clover. The ryegrass will make forage earlier and lessen the chance of cattle bloating on the rich forage produced by the clover.

More information on planting legume forages and winter pasture can be found on the Web site of the Texas A&M University System Agricultural Research and Extension Center at Overton: http://overton.tamu.edu/clover/cool/ . Or agricultural producers can contact Vendramini at (903) 834-6191; e-mail jvendramini@tamu.edu