Though fuel and fertilizer have driven up the costs of establishment, winter pastures are still producers’ best bet to reduce winter feeding costs, according to a Texas AgriLife Extension Service forage specialist.
"There's always some aspect of a gamble to investing in winter pasture as there is with any venture in agriculture," said. Dr. Vanessa Corriher, who is based at the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Overton.
Winter pasture establishment costs have risen with all other livestock production costs. This year, East Texas producers may be lulled into a false sense of security as the region hay stocks are high. But much of that hay may be low in protein and energy.
"Although there is hay available in Northeast Texas, quality is an issue since producers most likely took shortcuts on typical fertilizer practices due to the costs," Corriher said. "With poor quality, hay producers may have to supplement in order to provide the needed protein and energy this winter. And like everything else, the costs of supplemental feeds have risen as well."
Soil moisture levels are often another concern, she said. But currently, levels are high in East Texas thanks to recent rains. An active hurricane season this year promises to bring more moisture, but she warned that East Texas sandy soils can dry in a few weeks without rain.
Still, considering the nitrogen is about 75 to 80 cents per pound, it’s a good idea to adopt the traditional "wait-and-see-if-it-rains" approach, Corriher said. She recommends seeding winter pasture between Sept. 15 and Nov. 15, with early to mid-October as optimum.
What to plant? Research has shown one of the best bets is a clover/ryegrass mix. There are other mixtures that may promise more forage at higher risk, and some that are less risky, such as a rye/ryegrass mix. But rye/ryegrass mixes require more nitrogen, and the clover/ryegrass mixtures have the added advantage of supplying carryover nitrogen for summer grasses. (See related article at http://agnews.tamu.edu/showstory.php?id=662.)
And the clover/ryegrass mix fits in well with the "wait-and-see-if-it-rains" approach. If a clover/ryegrass mix is fertilized at the same time as planting, the nitrogen-fixation process of the clover will be slowed or turned off. The ryegrass will do well, but the clover will not produce much nitrogen that can be used by warm-season grasses the next spring and summer, she said.
"The recommendation is to apply 50 to 60 pounds of nitrogen per acre in late December or early January," Corriher said. "This will increase the performance of the ryegrass and still allow the clover to fix nitrogen, thus saving fertility costs the next summer."
Producers should also take a hard look at soil pH, she said. 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 most soil nutrients.
Lime treatments to reduce soil acidity generally take months to have an effect, Corriher added.
"So a liming this time of year, though good, would not have much effect on winter pasture performance, especially clovers," she said.
About 10 types of clover are adapted and available, but three, arrowleaf, crimson and white clovers, are best adapted for East Texas soils, she said.
A step-by-step planting guide for clovers can be found at http://aggieclover.tamu.edu/guide/steptext.htm.