Should Pastures Be Fertilized in 2023?

NE Producers Might Consider Reduced N Applications as Drought Lingers

Russ Quinn
By  Russ Quinn , DTN Staff Reporter
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Cows graze smooth bromegrass pasture on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) Research Farm near Mead in 2019. (DTN file photo by Russ Quinn)

OMAHA (DTN) -- With continuing drought and high fertilizer prices, livestock producers are debating fertilizer application decisions on pastures. Do you apply expensive fertilizer, as it is difficult to recoup the cost if drought continues? Or do you not apply any fertilizer, which will drop tons per acre?

Extension specialists with the University Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) said last week this growing season might be a good year to reduce your nitrogen application rate.


In a webinar titled "Fertilizing Pasture: Is It Worth It in Today's Economic Conditions?" UNL Extension specialists presented the various factors affecting the application of nutrients to smooth bromegrass pastures. The webinar was part of a regular series from UNL's Center for Ag Profitability.

Daren Redfearn, UNL Extension forage systems specialist, said smooth bromegrass pastures will respond with increased yields to an application of nitrogen fertilizer. Nearly 75% of the growth in the grass occurs in the spring before mid-June, he said.

The current situation of high hay prices (roughly $200 per ton), higher nitrogen prices ($0.80 per pound of N) and dwindling hay supplies have some producers undecided on whether to apply nitrogen to grass in Nebraska. The key is what happens with the weather outlook for the growing season, he said.

Redfearn said drought conditions remain. While he thinks drought conditions may improve a little bit until at least the end of July, "they're not going to be eliminated by any stretch of the imagination." Therefore, "Nitrogen fertilizer rates might need to be adjusted downward if drier weather persists," he said.

Redfearn said 60 to 80 pounds of nitrogen per acre is best for a spring application to smooth bromegrass. Applying 35 pounds per acre of nitrogen in a growing season with questionable moisture might be the most rational option this growing season, he said.

Growers also need to pay attention to soil-test results. In addition, soil pH, phosphorus and potash levels will also need to be taken into consideration, he said.

Redfearn said another good approach when applying nitrogen to smooth bromegrass pastures would be to consider strategic fertilizer application in the more productive acres. This approach would be a better use of moisture and nitrogen fertilization.

After the severe drought last growing season, some pastures might need some extra care before cows graze again this summer. Try to fertilize before a rain to increase fertilizer efficiency; control of early season weeds will be important, he said.


Fertilizer application on pastures can also have an effect on livestock performance, according to Mary Drewnoski, UNL Extension beef systems specialist.

UNL has conducted research on fertilizing smooth bromegrass and the effect it has on grazing cattle. For 15 years they have applied 80 pounds per acre of nitrogen and grazed 700-pound calves.

Drewnoski said an average 151-day grazing season has been seen from those years. Increased carrying capacity has also been seen, from 3/4 calf per acre to 1 calf per acre and 3.1 animal unit months (AUM) per acre versus 4.2 AUM per acre compared to unfertilized pasture.

"The study showed there was no impact on average daily gain (ADG), which was at 1.57 pound per day," Drewnoski said.

Overall, there can be positive responses for both agronomic and animal performance when nitrogen fertilizer is applied to smooth bromegrass pastures in Nebraska, she said.

To listen to the entire 58-minute webinar, go here:….

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Russ Quinn