Last week, I started baling this summer's hay crop, and the first field to be baled was the hay meadow that I wrote about last year. Last year, I wrote that I liked these native grasses because they were relatively low-input and they reliably gave me a hay crop year after year. In the past, I never worried about a few weeds or even thought about fertilizing, but last winter I happened to read about a research project done by the Noble Foundation about the effects of fertilizer on native grass stands which came to the conclusion that fertilizing native grasses would result in much more grass growth although the profitability of that fertilizing might vary from farmer to farmer.
Back in early spring, I was still thinking that we might be headed into another drought (that was before the skies opened up and it rained non-stop for a month, so that's that for my weather forecasting abilities) so based on the data from the Noble Foundation studies, I decided to fertilize the hay meadow with a little over 100 lb. of 18-46-0 fertilizer per acre (which would be approximately 20 lb. of Nitrogen and 50 lb. of Phosphorus per acre) to make sure I'd have enough hay. I also decided to spray the field for weeds because I wanted to fertilize the grass and I didn't really want to fertilize any weeds because of the old rule of thumb that you NEVER want to fertilize weeds. The fertilizer and herbicide cost approximately $30/acre.
I wasn't really sure how much effect the fertilizer and weed control would have on my hay crop (I always try not to get my hopes up too high), but it was pretty obvious that there weren't that many weeds in the field even before I started cutting the hay which was a little encouraging.
In the end, I ended up with about 50% more bales of hay (4500 lb. per acre vs. 3000 lb. per acre) from that field compared to my best year's hay production which I'd count as a success. An extra 1500 lb. of hay per acre for $30 is pretty close to a bargain in my mind.
In addition to the extra hay production, I also noticed that I had a high percentage of big bluestem, switch grass, and even some sideoats grama grass (very unusual) growing in the field. I've always read and heard that it takes more fertility and management to get a higher percentage of those types of grasses into a native grass pasture, so I'm guessing that the fertilizer helped to thicken up those "better" grasses. If I was positive that I could do the same thing and get more big bluestem grass, I'd be tempted to start managing some pastures this way in an attempt to move closer to native tall grass prairie type of pastures.
Supposedly, Grandpa would have had a fit over those uncut strips of grass left in the field, but it's never really bothered me, although the way the hay rake left the windrows all clumpy and uneven does kind of irritate me.
Now I have to decide what to do next year. Do I fertilize and control the weeds once again? Do I only spray for weeds and hope there's enough fertility left from this year for a decent hay crop (phosphorus is supposed to be longer lasting)? Do I spread some nitrogen fertilizer instead of 18-46-0? Do I go the low-input way and do nothing at all?
The one thing I know for sure is that it's a heck of a lot more fun cutting and baling a thick stand of weed-free grass than cutting and baling a thin weedy stand of grass.