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Increasing establishment rate

Vanessa Corriher-Olson for Progressive Forage Published on 30 April 2021

Sound forage establishment and management practices are critical to realizing a profit in hay or forage-based livestock production. In many instances, the existing forage base may be adequate for a given enterprise, and fine-tuning management is all that is required.

In some cases, however, a different forage species may be desired to augment existing forage resources. The management of introduced forages demands appropriate grazing management, fertilizer inputs and more frequent use of herbicides.

Adaptation

Not all forage species grow well on every type of soil or in all parts of a state. The manager in charge of establishment should determine whether or not the forage species under consideration is adapted to the site. Of primary importance is location, taking into account soil type and average annual rainfall. Some forage species may have higher moisture requirements or may have less cold tolerance than others. Producers should enlist the aid of agricultural professionals to ensure a good match between forage species and site. Local county agricultural extension agents and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) can provide informed insights into which forages are best adapted to local conditions.

Timing

Although warm-season forages are generally planted in the late winter to early spring and cool-season forages in late summer to early fall, the window of opportunity for planting can actually be extremely short. Therefore, the need for good planning and preparation beforehand is critical. Seedbed preparation usually requires the most time and generally depends on a certain level of moisture to adequately work the soil. Producers anticipating forage establishment should plan well in advance. The secret is to be aware of potential problems that might prevent planting at the right time and deal with those issues beforehand. The following checklist will help ensure all is ready when the opportunity to plant presents itself.

  • Obtain soil sample from site.

  • Decide on forage species based on system requirements and select adapted forages.

  • Inquire as to availability of seed or vegetative plant material (if planting hybrid bermudagrass) and cost.

  • Locate equipment that will be required for establishment well in advance.

  • Begin seedbed preparation in anticipation of planting. Remember, it may take several trips across the field to prepare the final seedbed. Allow adequate time to account for possible delays due to weather, equipment failure, etc.

  • Incorporate P (phosphorus), K (potassium) and lime as required (based on soil test recommendations) into seedbed while working the ground.

  • Plant good-quality seed or vegetative plant material at the proper rate to the proper depth. Plant into a moist seedbed if possible.

  • Top-dress with nitrogen following germination of grass seedlings or tillering of sprigs.

  • Be alert for pests such as insects or weeds that may require pesticide application.

Fertility

Several specific nutrients are required for adequate growth of forage plants. The availability of these nutrients, or the soil fertility status, varies from site to site because of differences in precipitation, parent materials of the various soils and past cropping history. A soil test is the only reliable way to know what fertilizer is required for your field. The soil test minimizes applying fertilizer not needed and helps you apply the nutrients you do need in the appropriate amounts. If a soil test is not used to determine fertility requirements, either too much or too little fertilizer will be applied to the pasture. Either way, the producer is not optimizing forage production or inputs.

Nitrogen fertilizer provides forage growth and additional crude protein (CP), and is the most limiting factor to forage growth with the exception of moisture. Nitrogen should be applied based on the yield goal of forage grasses. In other words, only apply the level of nitrogen that will produce the quantity of grass you need for your production system.

Phosphorus and potassium are additional nutrients required by plants in relatively large quantities. If phosphorus or potassium are deficient, the expected response of grasses to nitrogen fertilizer will not be realized. Therefore, it is important to maintain P and K at sufficient levels. Again, a soil test is the only way to know what the soil nutrient status for these important elements is.

Seedbed preparation

There is no substitute for good seed-soil contact, and this usually means preparing a proper seedbed. Specialized equipment may be required to prepare fine seedbeds for forage species such as alfalfa, while annual ryegrass can be established with little or no seedbed preparation. Most species fall in between these two extremes and, in many cases, common equipment found on many farms will suffice.

Seed/sprigs

Seed cost is a small portion of the overall establishment cost of a pasture. Therefore, do not attempt to save money by purchasing “cheap” seed of unknown quality. Purchase the highest-quality seed with as little weed contamination as possible. Additionally, pay close attention to the seed tag on the bag. Important information regarding the amount of pure live (percentage of seed that will germinate) seed (PLS). If the seed is not 100% PLS, adjustments will be necessary to ensure the correct amount of seed is planted. Sprigs should be dug from pure, well-maintained stands of bermudagrass and planted quickly after digging, as vigor will decline. If stem cuttings are used, they should be 6 to 7 weeks old and have six or more nodes. Purchasing from established bermudagrass growers can increase the chance of establishing a pure stand of a given hybrid variety. Local county agricultural extension agents and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) can often provide a list of local bermudagrass sprig growers.

Equipment

A drill is an excellent method of establishing grass pastures or legumes; however, seed can also be broadcast using a fertilizer spreader. You may not have to purchase equipment – there is usually equipment that can be rented or borrowed. Pay attention to recommended planting depth. Planting depth can have a negative impact on germination if seed is not planted at appropriate depth. Plan ahead, however, to make sure the equipment will be available and in good working condition.

Pest management

After establishment, weed or insect damage can be so severe as to eliminate the stand. Be alert and apply pesticides as needed according to label directions. Local county extension agents can help provide information on treatment thresholds and control options. Careful scouting of newly planted pastures should be employed.

Early grazing management

Allow forage to attain 6 to 8 inches in height before grazing. A simple test to determine if the forage is well established is to attempt to pull up several plants by hand. If you are unable to uproot the plant, livestock will probably be unable to uproot the plant. Realize that, depending on weather and soil fertility, you may not have any grazing the first year of establishment.  end mark

Vanessa Corriher-Olson
  • Vanessa Corriher-Olson

  • Associate Professor and Extension Forage Specialist
  • Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center
  • Email Vanessa Corriher-Olson

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