Spring Forage Fertilization Considerations

April 1, 2020
ICM News

Fertilization is just as important for forages as it is for row crops to maximize productivity. This article addresses spring fertilization considerations for forage crops and pastures.

Nitrogen considerations

Nitrogen (N) applications can either be a one-time, annual application or can be split applied. Suggested N application rates for single application are in Table 1 and rates for split applications are in Table 2.

Table 1. Suggested N application rates for a single annual application

Kentucky bluegrass

April: 60-100 lbs N/acre

Tall cool-season grasses

April: 80-120 lbs N/acre

Warm-season grasses

Late April to early May: 80-150 lbs N/acre


Table 2. Suggested N application rates for split applications

Kentucky bluegrass

  • Early spring (March-April) 60-80 lbs N/acre
  • Late spring (May-early June) additional 30-40 lbs N/acre (optional)
  • And/or late summer (August-September) additional 30-40 lbs N/acre

Tall cool-season grasses

(orchardgrass, smooth bromegrass, reed canarygrass, and tall fescue*)

  • Early spring (March-April): 80-120 lbs N/acre
  • Late spring (May-early June) additional 40-60 lbs N/acre (optional)
  • And/or late summer (August-September) additional 40-60 lbs N/acre

* Note: For pastures or hayfields with tall fescue, high N rates increase the risk of fescue toxicosis.

For legume-grass mixed pastures or hayfields, if the stand is less than 1/3 legume, treat as a grass pasture or hayfield. If the stand is more than 1/3 legume, no nitrogen is recommended. Also note that for legume-grass mixed pastures or hayfields, high or frequent applications of N (particularly spring N applications) will make the grass component more competitive and limit the amount of legumes in the mixture. To encourage a greater legume presence, use modest N rates and limit application to summer or fall. 

Phosphorus, potassium, and lime considerations

Forage plants also respond to added phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) when soils have low or very low P and K test levels. Taking a soil test is the only way to know what those levels are and to determine how much P and K is needed.

While pastures typically have little nutrient removal, that doesn’t mean that the redistribution of those nutrients is equal. Nutrient levels tend to be higher near shade and watering sites. Additionally, how grazing is managed (continuously, rotational, strip, etc.) can impact nutrient redistribution. Taking these factors into account when soil sampling pastures is important.  

For hayfields or pastures that have hay removed, it is important to put on additional P and K fertilizer based on crop nutrient removal. For instance, each ton of smooth bromegrass hay harvested at 15% moisture removes 7.9 pounds of phosphate (P2O5) and 41 pounds of potash (K2O) per acre. More information on crop nutrient removal for other forage crops can be found in Table 3 of PM1688, A General Guide for Crop Nutrient and Limestone Recommendations in Iowa.

Timing of P and K applications can be flexible; however, it may be more convenient to fertilize in the fall or spring along with the N fertilizer application.  

Soil pH can also impact forage productivity. It is recommended for grass-based hayfields and pastures to maintain a soil pH of around 6.0. To encourage and maintain legumes, try to maintain a pH of 6.5 for clovers and birdsfoot trefoil and a pH of 6.9 for alfalfa. 

Additional resources


Links to this article are strongly encouraged, and this article may be republished without further permission if published as written and if credit is given to the author, Integrated Crop Management News, and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. If this article is to be used in any other manner, permission from the author is required. This article was originally published on April 1, 2020. The information contained within may not be the most current and accurate depending on when it is accessed.


Rebecca Vittetoe Field Agronomist in EC Iowa

Rebecca Vittetoe is an extension field agronomist in east central Iowa. Educational programs are available for farmers, agribusiness, pesticide applicators, and certified crop advisors.

Areas of expertise include agronomy, field crop production and management of corn, soybeans, and...