Authors as Published

Harlen E. White, Extension Agronomist, Forages, Crop and Soil Evironmental Sciences Department, Virginia Tech

Virginia has about 1.5 million acres of steep pastures (Figure 1) . Simply turning livestock onto these pastures to graze requires little management. However, managing these pastures so that they provide year-round grazing in the quantity and of the quality needed requires sound planning, excellent judgment, and an understanding of how to handle the plant-animal relationship so both will benefit.


Figure 1. Cattle and Sheep Grazing on Typical Steep Pasture in Virginia.

In managing steep pastures, a distinction should be made between soils capable of growing high-quality, productive pastures, and shallow, rocky areas that support primarily weeds and turn brown during even mild droughts. Those pastures on productive soils should be given highest priority for management inputs such as fertilizer, fencing, and water-source development.

Fit Pasture Into 12-Month Forage Plan

A well-planned forage system makes use of pasture, hay, and silage crops to provide an adequate and reliable supply of forage for livestock throughout the year. Such a forage plan must be based on the requirements of the animals and must be fitted to the topography, soils, and other characteristics of the farm. Availability of labor, capital, and harvesting, storage, and feeding equipment also influences the system utilized.

It is possible for well-managed pastures to provide grazing year-round. In order to obtain this much grazing without overgrazing, it may be necessary to supplement cool-season pastures with summer grazing crops, such as Caucasian Bluestem, Switchgrass, sorghum-sudangrass hybrids, sudangrass, and peal millet. It is often possible to reduce grazing pressure during critical periods by changing population and type of livestock; e.g., selling lambs or yearling calves after the spring growth of pasture is utilized. Winter annual crops such as rye, or a mixture of rye and barley, can provide additional late-fall and early-spring grazing. Stockpiled tall fescue can provide grazing through the winter months.

In selecting grasses and legumes, consider how each pasture fits with other forages on the farm, the grazing management it will receive, and the suitability of the soil for the species in the stand. Fortunately, most forage mixtures adapted to Virginia conditions lend themselves to more than one use. For example, alfalfa-orchardgrass is primarily a hay or silage mixture, but it also makes excellent pasture. Harvesting surplus spring pasture for silage or hay begins to build stored feed supplies early in the season, when climatic conditions are best for growth of most pasture plants.

Forage plants and mixtures differ in growth habits and in the amount of feed they produce during different seasons of the year. No forage mixture provides adequate grazing for the entire season; but, by recognizing the growth habits of each forage species, mixtures can be selected to meet grazing needs and provide silage or hay.

The summary in Table 1 gives seeding rates, adaptation, and general management for forage plants to be used for pastures in Virginia west of the Blue Ridge Mountains and in the northern Piedmont.

Table 1. Forage Mixtures and Their Management West of the Blue Ridge Mountains and in the Northern Piedmont
UseMixtures and Seeding Rates in Pounds Per AcreSoil AdaptationManagement
Grazed ContinuouslyNo. 1All types of well-drained to somewhat poorly drained soils. Also, areas too steep for making hay for silage.Seed August 15 to September 15 or Mar 1 to Apr 15. If grazed continuously, pasture will be white clover-bluegrass. Productivity of the taller plants may be increased by rotational grazing.
Kentucky bluegrass6
White clover2
Red clover2
Rotational grazing or hay or silage followed by rotational grazing (will become ladino clover-orchardgrass mixture).No. 2All types of well-drained to somewhat poorly drained fertile and limed soil.Seed Aug. 1 to Sept. 15 or Mar. 1 to Apr. 15. Graze continuously until June, then rotate grazing. Graze to 3 inches, then let recover to 6-12 inches. The spring crop may be cut for silage or hay, then the pasture may be grazed rotationally. Red clover or alfalfa increases total yields for about 2 years.
Ladino clover1-2
Red clover2-3**
Continuous grazing or rotational grazing (furnishes more summer and late grazing than mixture 1 or 2).No. 3Better for excessively well-drained (shale) and poorly drained soils than mixture 1 or 2.Seed Aug. 1 to Sept. 15 or Mar. 1 to Apr. 15. Graze continuously until June, then rotate grazing. Graze to 1 inch to 2 inches, then let recover to 6-10 inches. Tall fescue is more tolerant of close and continuous grazing than orchardgrass.
Tall fescue6-10
Ladino clover1-2
Red clover2-3
Rotational or continuous grazing or rotational grazing and hay.No. 4Suitable for all types of soils, and better than above mixtures for infertile soils. Use fescue on dry (shale) or poorly drained soils and lespedeza for altitudes below 1,500.Seed lespedeza in Feb. or early Mar. 1 to Apr. 15. Graze continuously until June, then rotate grazing. Graze to 1 inch to 1/2 inch, then let recover to 6-10 inches. Tall fescue is more tolerant of close and continuous grazing than orchardgrass.
Annual lespedeza10
Ladino clover1
Tall fescue or
Silage-rotational grazing or silage-hay-rotational grazing.No. 5Fertile, limed, and well-drained soils suitable for alfalfa.Seed Aug. 1 to Sept. 15 or Mar. 1 to Apr 15. Silage in spring, then rotate grazing. Cut first crop for silage when orchardgrass heads, then let alfalfa reach 1/10 bloom before grazing or harvesting for hay. Stock small fields heavily to graze pasture down in about 1 week. Heavier rotational grazing as for mixture 2 will result in loss of alfalfa stands.
Ladino clover1
Rotational grazing - hayNo. 6Wide range - medium to high fertility; low pHSeed June 1 - July 1. Cut for hay or graze in boot stage. Rotationally graze 8 inch stubble for Switchgrass, 3-4-inch stubble for Caucasian Bluestem.
Bluestem or
* Mixtures 2, 3, 4, and 5 are fertilized as tall grass-ladino pasture. Mixture 1 is fertilized as bluegrass-white clover. Rates of fertilization based on soil type and soil test are shown in Table 4.
**Alfalfa may be substituted for red clover at 5-8 lbs per acre, provided soils are suitable and the alfalfa weevil is controlled.

Liming and Fertilizing

The most common fertility problem on Virginia's mountain pastures is low P2O5. Although K2O is usually not a limiting factor, it may be in some instances. Applying P2O5 to soils containing low levels of this nutrient, but capable of high production, encourages growth of white clover. Grass growth will be stimulated by N fixed by the clover. Clover is also high in feed value and improves the intake and digestibility of the mixture. Calves, for example, often gain an additional 50 pounds when grazing grass-clover rather than pure grass stands.

Most mountain pastures low in P2O5 require an application of this nutrient at least every 3 to 4 years. An example of the yield response to fertilization of pastures on productive soil is shown in Table 2. Note that a 41% increase in forage production was obtained over a 3-year period as the result of one application of fertilizer that was primarily P2O5. Much of this increase was caused by increased clover in the stands.

Table 2. Yield Response of Pasture on Steeply Sloping Westmoreland Soil - Tazewell, Virginia, 1968-1970.
 Pounds of 12% - moisture Forage Per Acre
No Fertilizer2,5383,2881,8917,697
300# 0-38-18/acre3,4804,8482,54910,877
Increase, lbs9421,5606583,180
Increase, %38473541
*Fertilized March, 1968. Soil Test pH - 5.8, P2O5-L, K2O-M.

Since very small amounts of P2O5 and K2O are actually removed from the pasture by grazing animals, soil fertility levels remain fairly constant once they are built up by fertilization. This is an important consideration when considering the economics of pasture fertilization.

Have the soil tested at the Virginia Tech Soil Testing Laboratory to be sure pH, P2O5, and K2O are not limiting. Whenever possible, lime to maintain a soil pH of at least 6.0 except for Caucasian Bluestem and Switchgrass. Response to fertilizer will be small if the soil pH is below 5.4; so, such areas should have a low priority for fertilization unless lime can also be applied. If the pH is below 5.0, do not fertilize unless lime is applied. It is especially difficult to keep clover in the stand if the soil is acid. Fertilizer and lime can be effectively applied any time of the year, but between October 1 and April 15 is considered ideal. Tables 3 and 4 provide guidelines for P2O5 and K2O applications based on soil test results.

Table 3. Fertilizer Rates for Annual Applications on Tall-Grass/Ladino Pastures on Group II Soils
Soil Test ClassNP2O5K2O


Table 4. Fertilizer Rates for Application Every 3-4 Years on Bluegrass/White Clover Pastures on Group II Soils
Soil Test ClassNP2O5K2O


Some steep areas have soils capable of high pasture production but are inaccessible to conventional equipment. However, many areas within steep boundaries can be reached with conventional applicators (Figure 2) . Such areas should be treated first, since they are often the most productive soils.


Figure 2. Liming and Fertilizing Steep Pasture.


On marginal soils, priority should be given to fertilizing slopes with a northern rather than a southern exposure. Slopes facing south green-up earlier in spring and grow longer in fall than slopes facing north. However, southern slopes are first to turn brown during dry periods because of higher summer temperatures. Cool season plants such as bluegrass often cannot survive these higher temperatures and the dry conditions that often accompany them.

The fertilizer dollar for pastures can generally be best spent for P2O5, K2O, and lime. In some instances, particularly for stockpiling tall fescue for winter grazing, N fertilization is practical. In deciding how much N to apply, the decision should be governed by the percent clover in the stand, the need for early and late grazing, the stocking pressure on the pasture, and type of livestock grazing the pasture. If the clover stand is poor, and additional grazing is needed, managing the pasture temporarily as a pure grass stand is often best. Apply up to 120 pounds of N per acre each season on orchardgrass or tall fescue stands and 100 pounds of N per acre on the native grass stands. Apply half of this N in early spring and the other half in late summer or early fall. Remember that N applications cause soil pH to drop, making it necessary to lime more often. If the clover stand is strong or clover growth is to be encouraged, do not apply N.

Grazing Management

Sound grazing management increases pasture yields and prolongs the life of grasses and legumes in the stand. Well-managed pastures result in utilization of the forage produced. This is essential if an economic return is to be gained from fertilization and other expenditures on pastures. Growth habits of a particular plant determine the method of grazing that it can withstand and still be productive.

Grazing management is based on light interception and organic food reserve. Leaves intercept light from the sun and, through the process of photosynthesis, manufacture food for production of new leaves and other plant parts. Food in excess of that needed for growth is stored in the lower portion of the plant as organic food reserves and is used later when there are not enough leaves to furnish adequate food for growth. If the leaves are not allowed to develop because of overgrazing, or are removed too early by grazing or mowing, the plant does not have sufficient time to manufacture organic food in amounts necessary for growth and replenishment of food reserves. Thus, the plant is weakened, regrowth is slow, and some plants may be lost.

Kentucky bluegrass, white clover, and other low-growing species can be grazed continuously if not grazed closer than 1/2 - 1 inch. Such plants produce leaves so close to the ground that animals cannot easily remove them. These leaves maintain a partial supply of food necessary for new growth after the upper portion of the plant has been removed, thereby reducing the drain on the plant's food reserve.

Mountain pastures are predominantly Kentucky bluegrass and can usually be grazed continuously or in long rotations. Before a pasture is grazed so short that livestock are not getting enough to eat and the plants are being injured, rotate the livestock to other pastures, or supply additional feed. It is difficult under continuous grazing to avoid overgrazing some areas, while undergrazing others, resulting in wasted forage.

Tall-growing grasses and legumes, such as orchardgrass, ladino clover, and alfalfa, grow erect. Since leaves on these plants are high above the ground, they can easily be removed by grazing or clipping. After leaves are removed, the food for new growth comes from reserve food in the roots and stubble. This means that tall-growing species should be grazed rotationally to give them a rest period after they are grazed or cut. This gives them time to replace the sugars and starches. The goal should be to graze pastures down within seven days and then allow about 15 days of rest in spring and 30 days rest in summer. Ladino clover usually replaces its food reserve when it grows to a height of 4-6 inches. Orchardgrass usually restores its reserve food by the time it reaches a height of 6-10 inches.

More livestock product can be produced per acre if pastures are stocked heavily enough to use spring growth. When stocked this heavily in spring, it is usually necessary to have some way to lower the grazing pressure during mid-summer or during periods when pastures are short. Having reserve silage or hay, selling off cattle or lambs, and making additional acreage available for grazing are methods of lowering grazing pressure during these periods. Grazing steep areas heavily in spring and taking a hay or silage cutting from accessible areas that are to be grazed later in the season is an effective system.

As illustrated in Table 5, heavy grazing pressure gives lower gains per animal during the grazing season, but more beef is produced per acre than with light grazing pressure. However, when grazing pressure is too heavy, both animal and pasture production suffer. Work toward a compromise where both per acre and per animal gains are acceptable.


Table 5. Effects of Grazing Pressure on Gain per Animal, Carrying Capacity, and Gain per Acre of Bluegrass/White Clover Pasture - Blacksburg and Glade Spring, 1967, 1968, 1969.
Grazing PressurePounds Daily Gain Per AnimalGrazing Days Per AcrePounds Beef Gain Per Acre
* Stocking rates were: Light, 1.3; Medium, 2; Heavy, 2.3 heifers/acre. These rates were reduced 50% in July.


The goal in proper pasture management is to maintain and utilize vigorous forage plants that will produce adequate amounts of high-quality grazing for livestock year after year. A guideline for the carrying capacities of pastures of different levels of productivity assuming 70% of utilization is:

Level of ProductivityAcres per Animal Unit
* 1 Animal Unit = one 1,000-pound cow with calf, two 500-pound steers, five ewes with lambs.

In order to obtain optimum benefit from productive pastures, the growth must be utilized while it is of high quality. Allowing cool season pasture to get ahead of grazing animals, especially during the period of rapid growth in the spring, results in tough, fibrous growth of low quality that is often wasted (Table 6). At the same time, clover is often crowded out by the tall growth and weeds grow that would be eaten under heavier grazing pressure. Grazing only those pastures actually needed in the spring, and stocking those heavily enough to keep up with the growth, results in higher quality grazing and greater utilization of plant growth.


Table 6. Stages of Plant Growth as Related to Feeding Value of Mixtures Used for Pasture
 Stage of Growth When Grazed
 VegetativeBud or HeadingFull Bloom
Digestibility of dry matter (%)65-7555-6047-53
Fiber and lignificationLowMediumHigh
Kind of supplements neededEnergy or NoneEnergyEnergy and Protein

Pastures not needed for grazing in the spring should be harvested as silage or hay when heads emerge from the boot. This results in higher-quality stored feed and greater regrowth for grazing than when the plants are more mature when harvested. These excess pastures also will make higher-quality feed if not partially grazed, tramped down by cattle, and fouled with manure.

Tall fescue should not be allowed to grow taller than 6-8 inches during the spring and summer. It decreases in palatability rapidly if it becomes too tall, especially during the summer months. It is especially critical to maintain clover in tall fescue stands to reduce the possibility of poor livestock performance.

Do not seed tall fescue in mixtures with orchardgrass or Kentucky bluegrass. Given a choice, livestock will leave the tall fescue ungrazed and often overgraze the other species. The tall fescue then becomes clumpy and low in quality.

Provide a reliable water source for each pasture. In some instances, this will require use of natural springs or planning and developing other water sources. Even high quality pasture areas will often not be used if they are too far from water. Locate salt boxes in under-utilized portions of the pasture to encourage livestock to spend more time there.

Other Management Suggestions

Maintaining Clover-Grass Balance

The maintenance of clover in pastures should be the goal of every good manager. The legume provides its companion grass with nitrogen and improves the feed value of the pasture. Clover is especially important in tall fescue pastures to improve livestock performance.

If the clover is thinning out, keeping the pasture grazed or clipped encourages clover growth. Be sure soil pH and K2O levels are adequate. Clover, like other legumes, requires a pH of at least 6.0. When K20 is limited, grasses and weeds use most of the available supply and cause the clover to be lost from potassium starvation.

If the grass is thinning out, let pastures grow to 8-12 inches in the spring before grazing or, better still, cut it off silage or hay. Avoid overgrazing and undergrazing during late summer and fall. Use 25-50 pounds of N in a complete fertilizer for topdressing.

Renovating Pastures

A combination of the use of lime, liberal use of a complete fertilizer, and reseeding is the most effective way to improve run-down pasture. Existing stands composed of approximately 50% desirable species can be thickened by reseeding in late winter-early spring. Apply a herbicide the previous fall if it is necessary to kill weeds, and fertilize as needed. Graze the sod very closely by late winter before seeding to reduce competition with the new seedlings. Seed the grass-clover mixture into the sod with a no-till drill or ordinary grain drill capable of placing the seed in the sod.

If a satisfactory stand of grass is present, make the same preparations as when drilling a grass-clover mixture, then broadcast clover and/or lespedeza seed on the sod surface in late winter while the soil is freezing and thawing (Figure 3) . Grazing the existing sod closely in the spring favors development of the seedlings.

Figure 3. Broadcasting Clover Seed in Late Winter.

If there is less than half a stand of desirable grasses and legumes, it is generally best to completely reseed. This may be done by tilling a seedbed or by killing the old sod with herbicides and seeding no-till.

Control Undesired Spread of Tall Fescue

Tall fescue has several desirable traits, the most important being its ability to grow and produce forage on marginal soils and its suitability for winter grazing. However, livestock performance is usually less than desirable when grazing tall fescue during the summer months, particularly if the tall fescue is infested with the endopytic fungus. If other grasses are suited for use in a particular forage system, no more than 1/3 of the forage acreage should be devoted to tall fescue.

Many bluegrass and orchardgrass pastures have been invaded and taken over by tall fescue. It is a very vigorous, persistent species that will usually crowd out other pasture grasses once it gets started. Since livestock usually graze other pasture plants in preference to tall fescue, it often produces seed in pastures. This encourages its spread. Tall fescue hay made from mature plants contains large quantities of seed. Consequently, pastures that have such hay fed on them are unintentionally but very effectively seeded with tall fescue. Also, seed will readily germinate after passing through livestock. Manure from animals that have eaten tall fescue seed heads, either from standing plants or mature hay, is a source of new tall fescue plants.

Preventing tall fescue from producing mature seed heads is the key to limiting its spread to unwanted areas. Livestock having access to mature seedheads should not be permitted on pastures where tall fescue is not wanted.


When pastures are stocked heavily enough to utilize plant growth, clipping is rarely necessary. If horses alone are grazing the pasture, or if it is not stocked heavily enough to use the growth, pastures should be clipped to remove older unpalatable growth and to control weeds. Mowing should be done after the grass heads have emerged, but before seeds mature (Figure 4) . Clipping at this time encourages more vegetative growth and generally reduces the period of semi-dormancy that follows after most grasses mature seed. Clip high enough to leave the grass leaves for future grazing, particularly if the clippings are not going to be saved for silage or hay. The seed heads and stalks are the only portions of the grass that need to be removed. Clipping is not necessary after each grazing for rotationally grazed pastures.

Figure 4. Mowing Under-grazed Pastures Reduces Weed Seed and Encourages Vegetative Pasture Growth.

If late summer weeds are a problem, clip to prevent their seeding. Usually 1 to 3 clippings a season are sufficient.

Stockpiled Winter Grazing

Winter feeding costs, particularly for beef cows, can be greatly reduced by utilizing winter grazing to lower the need for stored feed (Figure 5) . Tall fescue is particularly well-suited for winter grazing since it responds well to late summer fertilization, withstands heavy grazing, and retains its quality during the winter.

Figure 5. Cows Utilizing Stockpiled Tall Fescue for Winter Grazing.

Tall fescue pastures to be stockpiled should be grazed down to about 2 inches by mid-August and topdressed with 75-100 pounds of N per acre alone or in a complete fertilizer if P2O5 and K2O are needed. The stockpiled growth should not be grazed until other pastures are grazed down in late fall. One acre of stockpiled growth per animal unit will usually provide up to 120 days of winter grazing.

Strip grazing the stockpiled tall fescue with a single electric fence stretches the supply of winter forage and assures that high quality grazing will still be available when the last of the growth is grazed. Since the tall fescue is not actively growing, no back fence is required. Provide enough forage in each strip to last for 7-10 days.

Creep Grazing

Providing openings in the pasture fence (Figure 6) or simply raising the fence to permit calves to leave their dams and creep-graze another pasture of higher quality is a very sound, practical technique for insuring that high quality grazing is available to the growing animals that need it. Where it is not practical or feasible to improve a particular pasture, cows can often be forced to utilize the lower quality grazing and keep weeds down, while calves graze an adjacent pasture of higher nutritional value than the cows really need. It is often practical to fertilize, seed, and otherwise improve a relatively small area in or next to a large pasture boundary specifically to provide creep grazing for calves. Hay fields adjacent to pastures provide excellent creep grazing.

Figure 6. Gate That Permits Creep-grazing.


It is nearly impossible to truly manage pastures and control the grazing animals without adequate fencing. Implementation of most desirable management practices is dependent upon controlling the grazing pressure on a particular pasture. There is no optimum pasture size since this depends on numbers and types of livestock, quality of pasture, use to be made of the particular pasture, availability of water, distance from other pastures, and many other practical considerations. For a given group of livestock, it is desirable to have 3-6 different pastures available during the year. This includes hay fields that can also be grazed as needed. Upland or mountain pastures need to be fenced separately from more level, usually higher quality, pastures to force livestock to graze the steep pastures. This is particularly important for brush control. In many instances the level pastures can be harvested for hay if they are not needed for grazing at particular times during the grazing season.

Graze Various Classes of Livestock

Sheep are close grazers that will eat many brushy and weed plants left by cattle. Goats are browsers that will consume many woody plants that cattle will not eat. Horses are notorious spot-grazers because they prefer to graze short plants. Most livestock prefer not to graze areas where their feces and urine have fallen, but will often graze such areas soiled by other livestock. Different animal species can be grazed together in the pasture or in sequence to improve utilization of pastures.

Weed Control

Weeds compete strongly with the desirable pasture plants for light, soil nutrients, and moisture. Weedy plants are low in palatability, reduce quality and yield of pastures and, in the case of spiny weeds, prevent livestock from grazing desirable plants.

The first step in controlling weeds in pastures is to maintain a thick, vigorous stand of desirable plants by proper fertilization and grazing management. Many weedy plants thrive under conditions of low fertility as a result of little competition from desirable pasture plants. Fertilizing such pastures stimulates growth of desirable plants, often forcing out such weeds as broomsedge. Combine fertilization with proper grazing to put additional pressure on weeds. Livestock will graze many weeds after fertilization, especially if grazing pressure is heavy. Most weeds cannot withstand grazing, so this helps to eliminate them. Overgrazing weakens the desirable plants and permits invasion of weeds.

An increasingly serious problem with steep pastures is the invasion of woody plants, such as cedars, locusts, multiflora rose, and others. Placing extreme stocking pressure on brushy areas for short periods to force livestock to eat shoots and leave will help to control growth of these plants. In many instances, this is the only physically possible or economically feasible technique, assuming that hand digging or cutting is not an alternative.

Feeding hay, particularly large bales on brushy areas, encourages livestock to eat brush and clear out such areas. Manure and urine deposited in the area, plus seed that may be in the hay, help to develop the pasture sod. Hay used for this purpose should not contain large quantities of weed seed.

Timely clipping will help to control many weeds. Clip annual weeds at the early bloom stage, before seed production occurs, to prevent them from reseeding the pasture.

There are many weeds that cannot be controlled by clipping or grazing. Herbicides should be considered for these. Since recommendations for the use of herbicides change frequently, consult your Virginia Cooperative Extension agent for up-to-date chemicals and application rates for use on pastures.

In considering a chemical application, the first step is to identify the weeds found in the pasture. The weed species will determine which chemical should be used, time of application, and rate. Some weeds may require two or more applications. Seed from some weeds remain alive in soils for several years while others have largely fleshy tap roots or many rhizomes that produce new growth. It may take more than one season of spraying to control such weeds.

Using chemicals to control weeds is a sound practice for improving pastures. However, their use is only one management tool and should not be considered a replacement for management procedures that maintain a dense, vigorous stand of desirable pasture plants that can resist weed invasion.

Select and use pesticides carefully. Before using any pesticide, read the instructions printed on the label of its container; follow those instructions, heed all cautions and warnings, and note precautions about residues.

Reviewed by Benjamin Tracy, Associate Professor, Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences

Virginia Cooperative Extension materials are available for public use, reprint, or citation without further permission, provided the use includes credit to the author and to Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, and Virginia State University.

Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Virginia State University, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperating. Edwin J. Jones, Director, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg; M. Ray McKinnie, Administrator, 1890 Extension Program, Virginia State University, Petersburg.

Publication Date

May 1, 2009