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Pasture Quality Management

Robert Spencer

Urban Regional Extension Specialist
Alabama Cooperation Extension System

With proper management and implementation quality forages and browse can be the most abundant, cost efficient and beneficial food source a farmer can provide for their goat herd. Yet, as managers of food resources we often fail to take advantage of this natural, quality food source. An important factor in producing high protein food sources is understanding that forages (grasses and hay) and browse (trees, vines, and bushes) need readily accessible nutrients and minerals in order to maximize their nutritional output. Plants are able to produce high quality forage when they have access to sufficient forms of various nutrients. The need for a farmer to provide supplemental grain feed and minerals is minimized when forage and browse contain high nutritional values. I am not implying supplemental feed and mineral blocks will not be necessary, but just not in large quantities. While grain feed and mineral blocks are more costly than forages, browse, and hay, they do offer certain nutrients that may not be readily available in forages and browse. Economically, grain feed and mineral blocks constitute a considerable portion of most categories of farm expenses. The only portion that could be greater is labor, but, we know all farmers work for free. Ha, ha.

Plants are able to access nutrients two primary ways: (1) either naturally via what their roots are able to absorb from the soil, and (2) through what farmers may add to the soil in forms of supplemental nutrients/fertilizer. The first step to insure nutrient availability is done through soil testing to see which nutrients may be lacking. A visit to your local Extension Office will allow you to acquire a soil test kit and some information on where to send it for nutrient evaluation at a nominal cost. Too many farmers (me included) buy what the local coop is kind enough to recommend and assume that will be sufficient. With the cost of fertilizer these days, a farmer is better off to know what the soils on their farm need specifically, and have it applied accordingly, possibly saving several hundred dollars by avoiding application of non-essential inputs. Nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium are the primary ingredient in most fertilizers, but some soils may not need all three ingredients. Only soil testing will reveal what is necessary and what is not.

Lime application is another way to enhance nutrient availability in soils, allowing plants to absorb what they need to maximize their nutrient availability. Lime does several things: it affects soil pH, nutrient availability, and alters the environment for microorganisms. Most of the soils in Alabama are acidic, they have low pH. Applying lime reduces the acidity, therefore making the soils more conducive for growing high protein vegetation. Another way of looking at lime application is it “sweetens” soils allowing desirable plants a better chance to populate and grow, and undesirable weeds less likely to be prolific. You see, weeds thrive in acidic unhealthy soils, but do not grow well in healthy soils. Acidic soils tend to bind-up up minerals and other nutrients that may be readily available in soils. Liming pastures frees-up available minerals and nutrients so they are more readily absorbed by grasses and browse, therefore providing high nutritional forages.

By adding lime to pastures soil pH is modified; a change in soil pH should alter the living conditions in which parasites and micro-organisms are accustomed. Although not scientifically proven, the modification in environment should cause a temporary set-back in the ability of worms and coccidia to populate at a normal rate. Also, as lime is applied to a pasture some of the powder adheres to the surface of grasses and browse. Goats grazing on this plant material consume small amounts of recently applied lime. If you were to look at a flake of lime you would notice it has serrated edges which in theory should act as a mild cutting agent possibly shredding some of the worms found inside the stomach of a goat while minimizing the impact on the lining of the stomach. This is similar to the same assumption regarding the working properties of diatomaceous earth and how it controls parasites. Again, the effects of lime possibly controlling parasites are based on theory. If both of these theories were correct, many producers could consider lime a natural way to control parasites.

High quality forages are the result of a well informed forage manager and efficient management practices. Producing food sources for goats is not as simple as it sounds; it requires an understanding of soil science, plant science and forage production. Having an understanding of these interrelationships helps a goat farmer to more effectively manage the quality of forages and browse in a more cost-efficient manner.

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