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Recovering from Mud

Prolonged periods of unusually wet weather can make it very difficult for farmers across West Virginia. In summer, excessive rain hinders farmers' ability to grow and harvest hay. And, in winter, wet conditions make it harder to feed hay, especially if temperatures are above freezing and much of the precipitation comes as rain instead of snow. This results in the destruction of sod and increased mud around feeding areas. 

Late winter through early spring is the time to start planning how to revegetate the muddiest areas once cattle have been turned out to pasture in the spring. These winter feeding areas need to be revegetated as soon as possible to prevent soil and soil-fertility loss, provide forage production in the coming summer, reduce soil compaction and improve soil health for future forage production. Exactly what to do will depend on the degree and extent of damage and the tools available on the farm or within the community, whether that's from neighbors, local conservation district, or machinery or fertilizer dealers.

Where damage is primarily from hoof treading and the soil surface is relatively smooth, using a chain harrow to work the area when the soil is dry may be sufficient. This will break up light hay clumps on the ground. Hopefully, hay was not fed repeatedly in the same spot. If multiple bales were feed in one area, a front-end loader may be needed to remove excess hay and put it where it can be composted for later field application.

hand holding seed

Where only a single bale was fed in each spot, the chain harrow will usually open the area sufficiently for seedling establishment across the area. Small areas where seedlings don’t establish in the spring will usually have seedlings invade the organic mat later in summer or fall. For these sites, chain harrow the area. Broadcast the desired seeding mix, then chain harrow the area a second time to give some coverage to the seeds.

Where damage includes tire ruts, the ruts may need to be disked out. Disking with a heavy field disk is preferred. A back blade or dozer blade can be used if a disk is not available. If a blade is used, a light disk, field cultivator or spring-tooth harrow can be used to work up a seed bed. When the soil is worked up, it is best to firm the soil with a cultipacker, roller or pulvi-mulcher (with its spring teeth raised up). The seed can then be broadcast, the soil can be cultipacked a second time. Or, a chain harrow can be used to cover the seeds lightly, then the soil can be cultipacked.

When additional summer feed is needed, sudangrass or a sorghum-sudangrass hybrid can be planted. It is best to drill these grasses with a conventional or no-till drill, but the seed can be broadcast on a cultivated seedbed, then lightly covered with a chain harrow and cultipacked in. These seed should be planted no deeper than two to three times the diameter of the seed.

It is recommended that winter feeding areas be rotated around the farm in order to cycle plant nutrients. However, when only one area is used year after year, use an annual grass seeding to get ground cover and provide some forage. Be careful in a dry year since forage on these sites may accumulate nitrate, which can poison animals. Most of the nitrates are in the lower stems of the plant, so if animals eat only the leaves and not the plant stems, intake of nitrates will be minimized.

Both sudangrass and sorghum-sudangrass hybrids produce prussic acid in young growth or frosted growth. On healthy growing forage, graze sudangrass when growth is greater than 18 inches. On sorghum-sudangrass hybrids, growth should achieve a heigh of 24 to 30 inches. When there is a risk of frost, remove animals from both these grasses. Once the grass has been killed by frost and is completely dried down, livestock can graze off the dead material without risk of prussic acid poisoning.

Keep livestock off the reseeded winter feeding areas until the seedlings have grown to 8 to 12 inches tall or 18 to 30 inches tall for sudangrass and sorghum-sudangrass. Test the rooting of the seedlings by grabbing the plants by the leaves and pulling up firmly. If the roots stay in the ground and the leaves tear off the plant, the plants are well enough established to graze. Do not allow animals to graze off more than half the forage or stay on the area for more than seven days, preferably three days. If the area is adequately level so that the area can be hayed, that provides another option for harvesting the forage.

Repairing winter feeding areas is going to cost some money, so spend the money wisely. The purchase of a good chain harrow, if one is not already on hand, is a good investment. Use only blue-label certified seed since these varieties will be longer lived and more productive. Farmers should develop a management plan that reduces winter damage to reduce long-term costs for renovating winter feeding areas. Management practices that help include feeding only one hay bale on a spot of ground a year, placing bales out in early winter and strip grazing the bales with moveable electric fence, avoiding using a tractor to move hay in wet weather, confining cattle to a feeding barn in winter and storing the manure under cover before returning it to hay fields the next summer.

Normally, when making a new seeding, it is suggested to first take a soil sample and apply lime and fertilizer based on the soil test. However, years with prolonged, excessive precipitation are not normal years. In those cases, farmers need to get vegetative cover planted as soon as the weather permits. Most winter feeding areas will have adequate soil fertility and pH for the establishment of grasses.

Do take a soil test as soon as you can and apply needed fertilizer and lime during the summer. But, do not hold off planting. If grass appears yellow, apply nitrogen fertilizer at 50 to 60 pounds per acre per harvest. Sudangrass and sorghum-sudangrass will often respond to 100 to 150 pounds of nitrogen per acre.

Table 1. Seeding mixtures for winter feeding areas under different management, plant species and seeding rates (pure live seed pounds per acre, total pure live seed 20 to 30 pounds per acre).

Permanent winter feeding areas Rotated winter feeding areas
Annual ryegrass (20)
Kentucky bluegrass (3)
Crabgrass (2)
Ladino clover (2)
Or
Sudangrass (20-40, depending on seed size and if drilled or broadcast seeding)
Or
Sorghum x sudangrass hybrid (30-60, depending on seed size and if drilled or broadcast and seeding)
Orchardgrass (10) or
Endophyte free tall fescue (14) or
Enhances Endophyte tall fescue (14)

Kentucky bluegrass (3)
Red clover (8)
Ladino clover (2)
Annual ryegrass (5)

Omit clover seed and increase dominant grass (orchardgrass or tall fescue) seeding rate proportionally if planning to scout for weeds and spray approved herbicides for broadleaf weed control. Clover seed can then be frost seeded the next winter.

Information prepared and provided by Ed Rayburn, WVU Extension Service Specialist – Forages/Agronomy, and Tom Basden, WVU Extension Service Specialist – Nutrient Management
Last Reviewed: March 2019