What Am I Supposed To Do With All This Mud?
Last updated 2/24/2021 at 4:10pm
Editor’s Note: The following was written by Addison Bradley, a livestock agent, with the N.C. Cooperative Extension.
As I sit here writing this, I’m looking out the window and it’s raining - again. I’m also thinking about what we will face this afternoon when we go to the farm to take care of our cattle, and I’m sure it’s no different than what most of you are dealing with. Our winters often bring us moisture and cloudy days – the extremely muddy result being only something that a pig or small child would enjoy.
Mud creates a lot of problems and challenges that have negative effects on our operations. It creates potentially dangerous situations for both cattle and farmer from a footing standpoint, it reduces livestock performance that affects your bottom line, and has negative effects on future forage production. There is not much we can do about the mud right now, but we should be thinking about how to repair these damaged areas once spring finally gets here and things dry up.
If you do nothing, you’ll be left with a pasture that is rutted up by hoof traffic and tractor tires and one that may grow a significant population of weeds and undesirables. Winter feeding areas typically have a forage base that is crushed, root systems that are destroyed and bare soil that is compacted. Each of these have significant negative effects of the ability of this ground to grow desirable forages and to infiltrate water and nutrients later on.
Plan on spending a little time on these areas this spring. They need rest and rejuvenation. The first thing to do is to get the ground ready. As mentioned above, these areas are damaged by hoof traffic and need to be smoothed up in order to provide a good seedbed for whatever you decide to plant. It will be much easier to accomplish this with no forages present, so don’t wait too long after cattle are removed. We need to understand is that there are a lot of nutrients laying in these areas ready to be used by plants when things start growing again.
The next step is to get some roots growing to help break up that compacted soil structure. If this is an area that you use for winter feeding each year, it is probably best to look at planting a summer annual that you can move cattle back onto during the summer months when cool season grasses aren’t growing much.
This will also help offset some of the negative effects of grazing endophyte infected fescue when temperatures are hot. Some of your options for annual warm season forages include: improved crabgrass, pearl millet, sudangrass, and annual or perennial lespedeza. The target time for getting these in the ground is early April to mid-May, which should fit in nicely with cattle coming off of these areas and going to greener pastures.
In order for this to be successful, these areas need to rest. It will be very tempting to turn cattle on too soon because there will be a lot of high-quality forage growing that you’ll want to graze. We have to give these plants time to grow, both above ground and below.
Remember this ground has been worked and smoothed, so it may take a little extra time for the roots to actually take hold. You want those root systems to develop in order to help convert that compacted soil structure into a more porous one. This really helps those summer showers penetrate down in the soil and not run off the surface, allowing roots to continue to thrive. Before turning livestock on these areas, it is a good idea to go out and perform a pull test on a few of the plants to make sure the roots have fully developed. If you’re able to pull them out of the ground then that means your cattle will too and you should wait a little longer.
We don’t want mud, but most winters it is inevitable. There are several other factors to think about when dealing with these muddy areas and how they affect your operation, but it would take several more pages to discuss. The immediate thing to consider is repairing what we have in order to keep weeds at bay and give our cattle something beneficial to graze this summer. If you have more questions about this process or how to minimize the amount of mud next year by installing heavy use areas and adjusting stocking rates to limit the amount of hay you feed, please contact Bradley at (828) 884-3109.