The Green Lie of Hay and Grazing Lands: Deceivingly Green Pastures Performing at a Fraction of Their Potential
by Rich Taber
At the time of this writing in early May, I look out the window onto a green, awakening landscape, with the sun trying to deliver its warm rays to kick start the green up process via photosynthesis. I think of those approaching warmer sunny summer days, and all of the hay I will be putting up for my livestock this coming year, and also grazing. I think of those beautiful green fields of pasture lands and hay lands that those grasses grow on, and of all the effort, inputs, and money it will take to keep them healthy and producing well.
In my work with many new and beginning farmers, I also think of “The Green Lie, Version Two.” “The Green Lie,” Version One, is a term coined by a forestry colleague of mine, that refers to woodlots that have been pillaged of all their good timber trees, leaving only stunted, weedy species growing, with no planning for the future and leaving behind a ravaged woodlot, and frequently with impeded or nonexistent regeneration of young tree seedlings. From a distance though, after such logging jobs occur, you can still see green trees growing, the birds are twittering, and all looks deceptively well; “The Green Lie” if you will. The woods are still there, right? In many peoples’ minds, when looking at such woodlots, all must be well. But wait, what’s all this about a “lie?” Hear me out!
I have a lifelong and consuming interest in not only woodlands, but also sustainable agriculture, and in particular, grazing and animal oriented agriculture; the farms and woods are my life. I have come to observe another version of The Green Lie, “The Green Lie, Grassland Version Two,” all too many times in recent years. This version of the Green Lie applies to hay and grazing lands that have been neglected, with no inputs of any kind being returned to the land, and for all practical purposes, have been strip mined of most of their available plant nutrients and organic matter. Not only will these lands be nutrient deprived, they will have degraded soil structure. The health of this soil is poor. If you really want to know about the health of your soils, then avail yourself of the services of the Cornell Soil Health Testing Laboratory, where extensive information can be gained by having your soils analyzed there, and which goes above and beyond the traditional testing for pH and nutrient levels. Information on these services is included in a side bar.
The Cornell Soil Health Testing Laboratory’s Comprehensive Assessment of Soil Health (CASH):
CASH is designed for farmers, gardeners, agricultural service providers, landscape managers and researchers who want to go beyond simply testing the nutrient levels of their soils. It provides standardized, field-specific information on important constraints in soil biological and physical processes, in addition to standard nutrient analysis.
In addition to the laboratory results for each sample, we have developed a soil health management planning framework included with the sample assessment results to help you focus management changes where they will be most effective in improving your soil.
The assessment’s indicators and management strategies for improving soil health are also detailed in the Comprehensive Assessment of Soil Health Training Manual, available free online.
A more common soil test which tests your soils for pH and nutrient levels can be done by sampling your soils and sending them off to a soils lab, such as the Dairy One lab.
Degraded soil situations typically occur on lands that have gone out of active farming, and have lain idle or used by someone else. Eventually, they are purchased by a new and aspiring landowner. The lands may have had hay “taken” from them each year by a neighbor, but with few or no inputs such as lime, seed, manure and fertilizer added in a long time. Maybe the pastures have been repeatedly grazed year after year as well, also with no inputs added. From a distance, there will be green grass growing and all will look well, but the grasses and soils are limping along at a fraction of their potential. Once again the Green Lie deceives us with the green grass, warm sun, and twittering birds making us feel warm and happy.
So when our new landowner or renter decides to do a soil test, they get a shock when they find out that these lands have been mined of nutrients for years, and now it’s going to cost them a fortune to bring them back up to speed. Lime, seed, fertilizer, manure, and preparation all take a lot of time, money, machinery, and effort to apply. Let’s take a look at just one important component, lime.
Hay and grazing lands need a soil pH (which measures soil acidity) level of around 6.2 to 6.5 to grow most hay and pasture species. If you want to grow some high octane legumes like alfalfa, you will need pH levels of up near 6.8 to 7.0. So now let’s take a look at one scenario, the lime component, which can befall a new and beginning farmer when he or she gets ahold of some land that has had no inputs for a long time.
Our new farmer does a soil test, and they find that their soil pH levels are way down around 5.6 or so, which will hinder the growth of grasses, because all of the soil components which attract nutrients are bound up by acids. The soil test may tell them that they need to add four tons of lime to the acre, and they have 75 acres of hay land, and now need to purchase 75 acres times 4 tons per acre times $50 a ton for lime spread. This works out to about $15,000 for the 300 tons of lime needed. Now, to add insult to injury, we find that the lime we purchase only has a neutralizing value of 60%, so we have to divide 300 by .6 to get 500 tons of actual spread lime needed. Now we are up to $25,000. This works out to over $300 to the acre just to get the soil pH level back up to speed, to say nothing of added for costs for plant nutrients, seeding, and labor.
What is the take home message from all of this? You need to manage your soil fertility levels every so often with maintenance levels of lime so that you don’t end up spending exorbitant amounts of money all at one time! If you don’t lime and replace other key nutrients, your yields can go down to as low as only 1 ton of forage dry matter per acre per year, despite the Green Lie making you feel warm and fuzzy about that green growing forage that will still grow. Well maintained soils in much of New York State and the Northeast can produce 4-5 tons of forage dry matter per acre per year, if they are healthy, have good organic matter levels, and have the correct amount of available nutrients for profitable and sustainable plant growth.
The ideas and concepts of soil health are only briefly hinted at in this article, but they are important to the sustainability and economic viability of our farms, landscapes, and communities. Get those soils tested soon, and maintain those soil pH and nutrient levels!
Rich Taber is Grazing, Forestry, and Ag Economic Development Specialist with CCE Chenango. He lives on a farm in Madison County with his wife Wendy where they grow hay crops, and graze beef cattle, sheep, and pastured poultry on their steep, acid prone soils. He can be reached at 607-334-5841 ext. 21 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.