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Fall is the Perfect Time to Soil Test Forages

By: Charlotte Ward, Regional Forage Specialist, Yorkton

October 2016

It’s never too late to start planning for next year; Fall is the perfect time to take an inventory of your forage stands and evaluate production.  How did your perennial forage produce this year?  How did its production compare to last year?  What management decisions did you make that impacted production?

Often we find marked differences in forage production between hay fields on any given year.  We typically relate it to the weather, age of the stand and its previous production management.  A decrease in legumes, an increase in weeds and overall less than ideal production are usually the first signs that something is starting to go wrong in the system. 

Before making any management decisions, here are a few factors to consider:

  • What has been the recent production trend?
  • What is the proportion of legumes to grass?
  • Are desirable species present?

When desirable species are still present, there is an opportunity to manipulate and increase future production by implementing a management change.  While it may be as cut and dry as cutting less frequently or at a different time of year, management changes may also include the development and implementation of a soil fertility plan.  Soil fertility can be managed through the use of commercial fertilizers as well as practices that include the addition of manure or extensive feeding on the site. 

We know that hay production often results in a large export of nutrients from a field.  For example, one tonne of average alfalfa grass hay will remove 49 pounds of nitrogen, nine pounds of phosphate, 44 pounds of potassium and four pounds of sulfur.  As the forage production increases, so does the nutrient removal.  As such, we often see forage stands peak in production at three years of age and then have a significant decline thereafter.  Decreased forage production is more pronounced if soil fertility is not addressed at establishment and in the following years.

Addressing soil fertility at forage establishment and throughout the duration of the life of the stand is important.  Balanced fertility management provides the following benefits:

  • Enhanced yields
  • Decreased disease problems
  • Increased productive stand life
  • Increased water use efficiency
  • Increased feed quality
  • Decreased need for rejuvenation (especially on marginal lands)
  • Fewer acres need to be established and maintained
  • Decreased equipment and infrastructure requirements
  • Less dependence on rented forage stands or purchased feed

A simple fall soil test will give you a snap shot of the fertility status for next year’s crop. Fall is a good time to sample, as the colder the soil is, the more accurately it will reflect what is available to the forage plants in the spring.  Forage fields should be soil sampled and analyzed for actual soil nutrient levels. Fields should be sampled to the 0 to 6 inch and the six to twelve inch depths and analyzed separately.  Samples should be taken randomly throughout the field and be representative of the soil in the field.  Problem areas and areas that are not representative of the soil in the field may be sampled and analyzed separately.  To obtain a good sample representative of the field, 15 to 20 samples should be collected.  Subsamples should be combined and mixed to give a good representative sample.  Once collected, they should be kept cool and dry until they can be sent for analysis. It is a good practice to contact the laboratory doing the analysis to gather additional information about handling, packaging and other requirements for analysis.

Knowing the fertility status of the soil this fall, allows plenty of time to explore management changes. While this may include feeding on the field (home grown or purchased feed), it may also include the purchase of commercial fertilizer before year end when fertilizer prices are typically lower than the spring seeding time period.  This is a good time to put your calculator to work as well and estimate net returns expected from a change in management practices.

While adding nutrients may be a quick fix to increase forage production, soil fertility is only one factor in the management of the forage production system.  Fall and winter is the perfect time to evaluate and analyze the overall forage system to ensure that it will be profitable and sustainable in the long term.

For more information, please contact your local Regional Forage Specialist or the Agriculture Knowledge Centre at 1-866-457-2377.

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