Hay growers and livestock owners often spend alot of time and effort working out the details of their fertilization and herbicide applications in order to maximize their yields, but often they are unaware of some simple steps that can be taken to address such issues. Knowing these techniques and how they can benefit you can be a good first step toward decreasing costs and increasing profits for your farm or ranch.
Roots, Carbs and Improved Yields
One simple way to improve yields from season to season and even cutting to cutting is by not cutting your cool season grass hay too short (or not allowing your animals to graze your pastures too short). Cool season grasses store most of their carbohydrate reserves in the first 3-4″ of stem above ground. So, if you cut into this portion of the grass and bale it up (or allow your animals to graze it down) you are stealing those carbohydrate reserves from the grass, thereby “stunting” its regrowth and slowing it down.
Since those extra carbs serve minimal nutritional purpose for the animals eating the hay, and that extra couple inches of grass stem does not SIGNIFICANTLY increase the overall yield pulled from the field on each cutting, you are better off leaving those stubs alone so that the grass has the carbs it needs for quick growth following a cutting or faster green-up and growth in the spring.
Believe it or not, you can actually stall your spring green-up by 2-4 weeks by cutting your hay too short at the end of the previous season. This is because those carbohydrate reserves are needed for root regrowth in the spring which follows the root shedding that occurs over the winter. So, similarly, if you allow your animals to graze your pastures down to nubs prior to winter, you stall out the spring regrowth in your pastures.
Combating Weeds in Your Hay
Not only does cutting or grazing your hay too short in the fall decrease the yield that you can pull from that first cutting in the spring, it also increases weed growth, which, in turn, increases the need to apply herbicides to take care of the weeds, increasing your costs even further. In contrast, the quicker you can get the grass growing in the spring, the more it will shade those weed seeds, preventing germination in the first place. Likewise, just simply having 3-4″ of stubble will do a much better job of shading those weed seeds until spring top-growth begins than if you cut it down to 2″.
So, if you’re trying to combat the weeds, consider leaving that 3-4″ of stubble (and those critical carbohydrate reserves) behind. You might find much less need for any herbicides at all, and you’ll receive the extra bonus of an earlier and/or more productive first cutting.
A Better Alternative to Applying Herbicides
Another way to save money (at least in the long run) growing hay is to consider overseeding as an alternative weed control method to applying herbicides. The thicker your grass stand is, the better your grass stand will be able to shade those weed seeds and crowd out what little weed growth you may get.
Of course, you’ve got the expense of the seed up-front, which will be more pricey than the herbicide you might have applied, but, over the course of multiple seasons, your overall costs would potentially be much less because you won’t be spending the money on repeated herbicide applications (nor the time and fuel to apply them). Moreover, overseeding your plot will provide for a thicker stand which will provide more yield.
Now, increasing the density of your stand will likely increase drying times prior to baling, but, otherwise, it will provide for considerably more yield for the time spent harvesting it, and time is money, is it not?
Combating Weeds Via Good Soil Management
Many weeds tend to grow more vigorously than grass on particular plots simply because the soil conditions are not ideal for grass but may be more ideal for a particular weed or category of weeds. Addressing those soil conditions so that the soil is more hospitable to the grass and less hospitable to the weeds can be a major step in significantly controlling your weed populations without resorting to herbicide applications.
Now, you may not be one who really feels that herbicide applications are really a problem, and, as much as may beg to differ, there’s really no reason for waste time arguing over that point. The simple fact of the matter is, if you can save yourself the costs associated with herbicide applications by doing things that are going to improve grass growth and inhibit weed growth, as long as those alternative methods are less costly and/or less time consuming, you win, whether you dislike herbicide applications or not.
Moreover, for those individuals who would prefer to purchase hay from farms that do not use herbicide applications, you’ll be doing yourself a favor by widening the potential market for your hay to individuals that you would not have been able to sell to before (and possibly for a higher price as well). So, if what I’m suggesting here works for you, it could prove to be a rather lucrative change in mindset, regardless of your personal opinions regarding herbicide applications.
High or low soil pH, low soil organic matter, soil compaction and even excessively high or low percentages of certain soil nutrients can all negatively affect grass growth and/or positively affect weed growth. Taking the time to address these issues can be a GIANT step toward controlling weed populations in your hay fields and pastures.
Also, in the next section, I’m going to take some time to discuss soil organic matter, humus and microbial activity. The truth is, if you focus very specifically on those specific issues with regard to soil management, most all of the above issues that can lead to poor grass growth and excessive weed growth will address themselves quite effectively, without you having to place much specific emphasis on ANY of them. So, I highly recommend that you pay close attention to that portion of this article.
Organic Matter & Soil Microbes Are Your Friends
Do not underestimate the HUGE impact that significant soil microbial activity can have to your overall hay yield and the drought and stress resistance of your plot. With good levels of soil organic matter (3 – 5 or 6% is best) as a food source and minimal chemical applications, soil microbes will flourish in your soil. As they do they will convert all of that soil organic matter into humus in the soil.
Humus is a tremendous benefit to your soil. Not only does it become a powerhouse nutrient source for your grass, yielding water INsoluble yet completely bio-available nutrients, it also can soak up and retain up to 9 times it’s volume in water. That means that ANY rainfall and/or irrigation that occurs on that plot will be soaked up like a sponge and held until the plant needs it. A plot with high levels of humus is a plot that can easily withstand weeks on end with absolutely no rainfall or irrigation and continue producing as if rainfall has been ongoing the entire time.
So, use soil analysis to determine your soil organic matter levels and top-dress with compost, manure or whatever organic matter you can get your hands on. Then, consider applying a product like AGGRAND Organic Fertilizer or Effective Microorganisms or something similar in order to stimulate additional microbial activity in the soil. I guarantee you that you’ll be glad you did.
Conventional Fertilizer Applications
Many people will rail against “chemical” or “petroleum based” fertilizer applications (in fact, I have to admit that even I had, in the past, done the same thing – you might even find some remnants on this site saying such things). The fact is that high nitrogen, phosphorus or potassium conventional fertilizers are not petroleum based and are derived from natural sources. The problem is HOW they are converted into the format that you ultimately apply and what that conversion means to the soil and to the plant over time.
I do not believe that most farmers that are using conventional fertilizers are “bad people” or that they are trying to kill the planet. However, that being said, conventional farming practices and conventional fertilizer use is causing problems that often result in additional chemical applications being used, many of which ARE more harmful to the environment, to animals, to humans and to soil fertility and usability. The processing/manufacturing of conventional fertilizers creates convenient, high density sources of macro-nutrients, which CAN produce significant plant growth, so long as there are plenty of supporting nutrients and minerals in the soil (since micro-nutrients and minerals are NOT supplied by conventional, high NPK fertilizers).
That’s the rub (or at least part of it). Because the plant needs these micro-nutrients and minerals for good growth and for the processing of those NPK macro-nutrients, every time you apply these conventional fertilizers, you force the crop that you’re growing to steal these micro-nutrients and minerals from the soil. Now, if you are regularly adding back significant amounts of organic matter to the plot, this won’t be as big of an issue. But, if you’re not, you’re stripping the soil and, quite frankly, setting your farm up for future failure when those micro-nutrients and minerals are gone.
At that point, it won’t matter how much chemical fertilizer you apply, you will not get good growth and the soil will be basically dead. I have had MANY farmers come to me looking for alternative solutions to conventional fertilizer applications, not because they don’t agree with the use of these types of fertilizer, but simply because they are no longer working for them the way they used to. Further inspection always reveals that the soil has been completely stripped of all life giving material, and these high NPK fertilizers are not supplying what the plant needs to grow.
They are only a small piece of the full puzzle. But, up until now, the soil was filling in the rest of the puzzle behind the scenes – unnoticed. When it ceases to be able to fill that gap, conventional fertilizers become a useless expense that produces little result. So, the question becomes, are in farming for short-term gain or long term success for you and your family?
Salt Build-up and pH Changes
Another negative aspect of the use of conventional NPK fertilizers is that, in the form they are in, as they are processed within the soil and by the plant, excess salts build up within the soil over time. The longer conventional fertilizers are used, the more these salts build-up. In fact, there are some plots which have been heavily fertilized with these conventional fertilizers for years and have actually become so saturated with these salts that you’ll actually see a white film crusting over the top of the soil. NOTHING will grow in those soils until they are completely renovated.
Of course, most soils are not yet that bad, but they are headed in that direction because the salts are building up within the soil at a faster rate than the soil can rid itself of them. This excessive salt buildup kills off or pushes out critical earthworm and microbial activity which only exacerbates the problem AND leaves any stray organic matter that might be in the soil in a state that is unusable to the plant because it is never converted to humus.
In addition to the salt buildup, conventional fertilizer use tends to have a negative effect on soil pH, moving it farther and farther away from neutral, often requiring the application of pH adjustment materials like lime or sulfur to address the issue. This only adds more expense to your farming operation. Research has consistently shown that soils high in humus and microbial activity naturally maintain neutral soil pH with minimal or no additional interventions necessary.
But, soils fertilized with conventional fertilizers and not amended continually with additional organic matter, tend to have very little humus (since the soils are being stripped and microbes and earthworms are moving out). Since soil microbes serve a crucial role in humus production AND have a symbiotic relationship with plant roots making it easier for plant to assimilate the water and nutrients they need, you’re creating a vicious, downward spiralling cycle which ends with dead soil and a desolate farm.
Drug-Like Behavior on Plants
Another factor that seems to be a strike against conventional fertilizer use is the effect that these types of fertilizer ultimately have on the plant, even in the short-term. It IS true, as I mentioned earlier, that, as long as you have sufficient micro-nutrient and mineral content in the soil (and soil salt and pH levels aren’t TOO far out of whack), you CAN get significant growth by using conventional NPK fertilizers. This is primarily because these fertilizers provide unnaturally high levels of these macro-nutrients and they provide them in a water soluble format. Even “slow-release” versions ultimately end up in water solution which the plant draws through the roots.
But, that is a problem when it comes to HEALTHY plant growth. Plants are not designed to process nutrients in this way. And, as a result, the plant ends up growing in an unnatural, steroid-like way, with many negative side effects. It’s much like giving a plant steroids via IV injection. For more detail on this whole topic, see my other article on Fulvic and Humic Acid in the soil.
Consider Adding Clover to Your Mix
Once you’ve got good soil and a relatively dense stand of grass, it may be advisable to incorporate some clover into your hay stand. Of course, there are many different varieties, and you’ll want to pay close attention to which varieties might do best in your climate, soil and growing conditions. But, this is an option well worth at least considering. Under the right soil microbial conditions, clover can fix tremendous amounts of atmospheric nitrogen into the soil.
This is nitrogen that will NOT wash away, leach out of the soil or vaporize after application, as is the case with many commercial nitrogen fertilizer applications. As a result, this soil nitrogen fixation is capable of significantly reducing or even eliminating the need for supplemental nitrogen application while promoting excellent grass growth (a significant savings).
Of course, clover is also an excellent protein source for your animals, so, on the nutritional front, it can be helpful as well.
All of that being said, if you don’t want to be overrun with clover, make sure you’re sowing your clover seed into a well established stand of grass that is already growing well on it’s own and has a good solid soil foundation with plenty of organic matter and microbial activity.
Of course, overseeding with alfalfa would be a suitable alternative to using clover as it also fixes nitrogen into the soil. Either way, if you’re going to overseed with ANYTHING (grass, clover or alfalfa), work on getting soil conditions right first. Address as many of your soil and fertility issues as you possibly can ahead of time. Otherwise, your seeding efforts will simply be less fruitful and you’ll be throwing money away on seed that doesn’t germinate and possibly fertilizer that serves little purpose.
Lastly, seriously consider inoculating the soil with the proper bacteria to help your newly seeded clover or alfalfa to properly fix that nitrogen. In fact, I’d say consider inoculating the soil at possibly heavier rates than generally suggested, since it’s nearly impossible to overdue it, and it’s not terribly expensive to do.
Irrigation – A Lifeline to Profits
Now, this is a topic that could create a bit of anxiety on the part of many smaller farmers simply because of the perceived up-front cost of actually providing irrigation to your fields. However, that being said, it IS an issue that should be given a bit more thought by MANY hay and pasture growers, simply because of the dramatic effects that prolonged drought or even short-term drought can have on your overall profits.
When it comes down to it, whether you’ve got good soil or not, a long-term drought WILL affect your overall grass production. Now, with good quality soil with plenty of humus, these effects will be MUCH less pronounced, even with long-term, prolonged drought situations. But, that does not mean that there will not be a decrease in production. This is still a likely outcome. The decrease simply won’t be as bad as it would be if you had low quality soil with little moisture retention ability.
And, if you’ve got REALLY good soil with lots of humus, the slight risk of a minimal decrease in production from drought may not be sufficient enough reason to invest in a potentially costly irrigation system. Unfortunately, for many farmers, soil humus levels are really NOT terribly good, which means that soil moisture retention is minimal, at best. As a result, even a couple weeks without rain on a non-irrigated plot can be a significant drain on seasonal yield. Go a month or more and the results could be rather devastating in some cases. So, it pays to consider whether investing in irrigation for your hay fields and/or pastures might be a feasible option when long-term farm profits are given precedence over short-term expenses.
Costs Significantly Tied to Methods
If you have written off irrigation as too costly an upgrade for your farm, especially if you are a farm with poorer quality soil where drought conditions can severely affect your yields and profits, I implore you to consider whether it would be worth brainstorming this issue a bit further to come up with a solution.
The truth is there are MANY different methods for irrigating a field and the costs of those methods vary greatly from one to the next, depending upon what resources you may have available on your farm, where they are located and how your farm is situated. The truth is, it might actually pay off to hire an individual or company that is knowledgeable in this area to evaluate your farm and fields to see what the most cost effective solution might be for YOU. You might be surprised at how much LESS it might cost to implement one irrigation method vs another.
The small consulting fee that you might pay for this initial evaluation might be well worth it in terms of making sure you get the RIGHT irrigation system for your needs and the additional profits such a system might yield by helping you avoid low moisture yield issues. At any rate, it doesn’t hurt to at least investigate your options. The internet is a great way to at least initially research some of available irrigation technology out there that you MIGHT take advantage of.
Raising the Installation Capital Necessary
Let’s face it, no matter what option you choose, installing irrigation equipment won’t be cheap. But, there may be ways to mitigate those costs and save yourself some money and hassle. If you don’t have the capital resources available to pay for the project or you don’t want to or can’t get a loan to cover the cost, there may be another option to consider to fund your project. This idea is a bit “out of the box”, but, it’s worth considering.
Crowd-funding is sort a recent trend that is taking the business world by storm. Basically, business owners or “up and coming” business owners pitch a new product or service idea through a crowd-funding website. Visitors to that website browse through the listings and consider which ideas “appeal” to them or seem like feasible business plans or products/services that people would actually want. For instance, some visitors “invest” in ideas simply because they are directed at issues they are passionate about, such as environmental protection or “feeding the hungry” or even something less idealistic like high performance auto mods.
The point is, many people invest in things simply because the idea “strikes a chord” with them, and, depending upon the crowd-funding website/service you go with, many of the “ventures” that are looking for capital are ag/farming related. Consider how to “pitch” your irrigation venture in a way that will appeal to people. If your farm is using more natural/organic and/or “grass fed” techniques, use that to your advantage.
As much as I may be one who tries to follow a more natural approach to things on principle, I’m not oblivious to the fact that it is also very “chic” to do so. You shouldn’t be oblivious to it either. Consider how you can use that current trend to your advantage, but, don’t be dishonest with people in order to get funded. If you’re not really using those techniques on your farm, please don’t suggest that you are just to money for irrigation.
Consider whether you might be more likely to get funded if you look toward more cutting-edge, innovative irrigation methods that may lead to better, more efficient farming in the future. If so, promote this aspect of your proposal. Then, make it worthwhile for those who consider investing. Try to offer something to investors that will make them feel that they are getting something of value for their investment but that may not necessarily cost you alot to provide. Then, it’s a win-win for everyone involved.
Read through other proposals (particularly in the farming/growing arena, but also in other niches) and see what other individuals or companies are offering as incentives to investors. It might trigger some unique and minimally expensive incentive ideas on your part which might make this a much more cost effective option for you.
Look at those proposals that have been successful in retaining funding for their project and try to emulate what you believe they’ve done to be successful. Look at those proposals that do not seem to be gaining much investment and try to avoid the things that you think they might have done (or NOT done) to hurt their chances. Research is going to be critical to this option of capital development, but, this could be an excellent way to fund your irrigation project without much money needed on your part.
Consider Using AGGRAND Organic Fertilizers
Let’s face it. Very few farms have the kind of soil that will promote significant growth without the use of some fertilizer inputs. The less soil humus and soil fertility you have, the more you’ll need some supplemental fertilizer to get the results you’re looking for. But, use of commercial NPK fertilizers is not doing you any major favors, at least not over the long haul. So, what can you do?
I would suggest at least taking a look at what AGGRAND Organic Fertilizers have to offer you and see whether they might be a good fit for your farm. They’re not right for everyone, but, they really are a great product and many farms could effectively integrate our products into their farming practices with significant positive effect, especially over multiple seasons.
Lots More Profit Building Farm Info
Check out the various other portions of the website for other informative articles related to the various ways that farmers are using our products and recommended growing techniques to increase yields, improve plant and animal health and, ultimately, increase their profitability.