Research »   Establishment

Establishment

Forage crop establishment is the most important step in pasture and hay production because pasture or hay stands are typically kept for a long time. When surveyed, producers indicate that they keep their pastures in anywhere from five years to ‘forever’. 

While we dream of permanent tame grass that produces good yields indefinitely, the reality is that forage stands decline in productivity over time and periodically need rejuvenation to be productive.  Therefore, forage establishment needs to be a regular tool used on the farm or ranch.  It is important to plan ahead and not let costs alone drive forage establishment decisions without considering the consequences.


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Introduction

Forage crop establishment is the most important step in pasture and hay production because pasture or hay stands are typically kept for a long time. When surveyed, producers indicate that they keep their pastures in anywhere from five years to ‘forever’. 

While we dream of permanent tame grass that produces good yields indefinitely, the reality is that forage stands decline in productivity over time and periodically need rejuvenation to be productive.  Therefore, forage establishment needs to be a regular tool used on the farm or ranch.  It is important to plan ahead and not let costs alone drive forage establishment decisions without considering the consequences.

Choosing forage species to seed in a new stand depends on:

      • when you need more forage,
      • what soil zone you are in,
      • whether you have soil limitations, and
      • whether you want hay or pasture. 

For example, if you are in the Brown soil zone and have plenty of early spring grazing, you want to look for a species other than crested wheatgrass.  If you are in the Parkland region and don’t need more hay production, then you won’t want to seed more smooth bromegrass.

Although the seed of these species are usually cheaper per pound and per acre than other species, it’s important to choose species that best fit your needs. You won’t want to live with a management headache of surplus forage at the wrong time of year for 10 years or more just to save a few dollars in the establishment year.

It is always helpful to do a grazing plan or forage budget and seed new forages stands to address the bottleneck in your system.  Extension forage specialists can help you in this planning exercise.

Companion Crops

Do not use a companion crop if you are in the Brown soil zone or in a region that is experiencing drought.  Research has shown that companion crops reduce seedling survival and subsequent forage yield in the Brown Soil zone but not in the Parkland.  Although it’s tempting to seed a companion crop no matter the soil zone to recoup some return in the seeding year, the economic return in the long term (five to 10 years) is lower when a companion crop is used in the Brown soil zone.

Challenging Soils

Soil salinity and flood-prone sites are special cases where forage establishment or re-establishment is the best use of the land, but the frustrations of dealing with variable soils, high seed costs and spotty forage establishment are customary.  The common practise on these sites is to use a ‘shot-gun approach’ - a mixture that contains many species that can establish within suitable micro-sites.  Species that can spread, such as smooth bromegrass or green wheatgrass, often help control less desirable species and weeds that invade in these areas.  Alfalfa’s deep roots and ability to use water can help reduce the high water table often associated with salinity.  Alfalfa will not establish in extremely saline sites within the field, but can help reduce salinity around the perimeter of these spots over time. 

Site Preparation

Standing stubble from a previous cereal crop is a good environment for new forage seedlings provided you have access to a no-till drill.  Surface soil in stubble should have some moisture either from over-winter snow trapped in the stubble or from early spring rain.  Soil water needs to be sufficiently available when you want the forage seedling to germinate and emerge. 

For most cool-season tame forage species, early spring is the best time for them to germinate and emerge.  Soils are moist and warming up, and days are getting longer so the seedlings have optimum growing conditions.  Keep in mind that forage seedling roots are usually restricted in the volume of soil that they can access.  Once the grass seedling has tillered out, usually after four to five leaves, the tiller roots form and the seedling can then cope with competition from other plants for soil water.

If you are seeding into summerfallow or tilled seedbed, firm the soil prior to seeding.  A good rule of thumb for firmness is that your boot print in the soil should not be more than ¼ inch (6 mm) deep. Loose soil can result in excessive depth of seeding.

Seeding Rates, Depth, and Spacing

Follow the recommended seeding rates for your soil zone and region.  There is a temptation to use less than the recommended rate to save seed costs, but low seeding rates can result in poor establishment, or worse - variable establishment across the field.  Spotty establishment raises the problem of how much reseeding needs to be done.

Row spacing may be important if you are in the Brown soil zone or in drought-affected region.  Some grass species, such as Russian wildrye, grow taller in wider row spacing.  If you want to hay this crop, seed it in wider rows of up to 60 cm (24 inches) so it is taller.  The total above ground growth does not differ between row spacings so if it is to be used for pasture grazing, row spacing can be as narrow as 25 cm (9 inches). In moister regions such as the Parkland, broadcast seeding will work if the seed is harrowed or harrow-packed to move it slightly below the soil surface.

Seeding depth must be shallow (8-12 mm or ¼ to ½ inch) for most forage species. This can be challenging if you are using older seeding equipment without depth control.  New zero-till drills with accurate depth control and on-row packing have made this much easier.

Annual forages can fill the gap in forage production until perennials get established. Warm season annual species such as corn or millets are often mentioned for their ability to grow at higher temperatures during the summer period.  These species also need sufficient summer rainfall to support growth during the hot summer.  In a trial at Swift Current, Saskatchewan, these crops did not yield as well as cool-season cereals such as barley or triticale during summers with little or no rainfall in July and August.  In the Parkland region where summer rainfall is more reliable, these warm-season crops are more reliable in forage yield and quality.

Conclusion

So how do you decide what to seed?  Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as recommending that everyone seed crested wheatgrass or meadow bromegrass. It depends on where you are, when you need the forage to graze and what soil challenges you have to face.  It is worthwhile to invest some time and planning prior to seeding, so it makes money for you for the next 10 years.

Finally, beware that grazing forages too early in the spring, before plants have reached the 3 or 3 ½ leaf stage, will reduce yields and shorten your grazing season.

See also: BeefResearch.ca >> Research >> Forage and Grasslands >> Improving Forage Yields

 

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Acknowledgements

Thanks to Dr. Paul Jefferson of the Western Beef Development Centre for contributing his time and expertise during the development of this page.

This topic was last revised on March 9, 2016 at 08:03 AM.

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