Read the current Progressive Forage digital edition

It’s your airplane: Seeding perennials

David Hunsberger for Progressive Forage Published on 01 March 2020

When we sold our milking herd of cows this past September, I was seeking a new venture to help take my mind off my cow-less estate, and I decided (with my wife’s blessing) to pursue a lifelong dream – acquire my private pilot’s license.

Currently I have 10 hours of instruction in a tail wheel J-3 Piper Cub. It requires a whole new skill set to learn, using a few controls, stick, rudder and the throttle. Learning to taxi at speed was a foot-peddles dancing affair – definitely needing mastery to control the ship on takeoff and landings. My 81-year-young instructor Dan encouraged me to anticipate the events and move quickly and efficiently to counter the forces and then to get off the controls. It is a great metaphor for production agriculture.

We all are aware of the proper steps to take to ensure a great stand at planting. We just need to refresh our memories and set our course of action. We will calculate and file our “flight plan” but keep our eyes open to contingencies that will no doubt occur. We need to know where we are seeding, what we are feeding and what kind of perennial forages suit us at this point.

We’ll need to determine what, if any, herbicide was employed on our acres in the last two growing cycles. A current soil test is imperative, to know if the soil environment will nurture our seedlings – sort of like knowing current weather conditions at the airfield. If the test indicates a need for lime to adjust pH, here is the first opportunity to make an adjustment. If we are just getting the test results, perhaps we need to add some amendments and plant a cool-season annual, followed by a warm-season annual for our immediate forage needs, and then establish our permanent forage this coming fall if the test is too far out of line for our planned seeding choice.

Seed-to-soil contact and controlling the depth of seed placement is next on our checklist. In essence, we are checking the windsock to ascertain the prevailing direction of wind; we want to be taking off into it, not having a tail wind at our backs. If we are using no- till, the soil is in perfect condition to receive seed after the freeze-thaw cycle has mellowed it. If we notice any winter annual weeds (including but not limited to henbit, purple deadnettle, chickweed, shepherd’s purse, pennycress), we must control them. The weeds have a head start on a viable root system. They have the advantage before we set our seeds and can run away with and overwhelm our investment. Control the weeds; make sure the “taxiway is clear before you bring your aircraft onto the tarmac.”

Next, calibrate the seeding machine. There is nothing worse than making it halfway across the field with not enough seed to finish, or looking in the seed box expecting to push seed around into the hoppers to make sure we can finish and finding the box over halfway full. To calibrate the drill, I like to get a planting chart and measure off 100 feet in the field. I remove the rubber boot off the bottom of the seed delivery mechanism and attach a plastic bag with a rubber band. Then I put a small amount of seed in that hopper, charge the mechanism and when seed begins to fall into the plastic bag, I drive 100 feet. Then I remove the bag, weigh the seed, compare it to the chart and make any necessary adjustments.

Seed lots all have varying degrees of difference. Last year’s setting or the manufacturer’s setting for a particular seed is just a great suggestion on where to start our first calibration run. After we are out in the field, we need to stop after 100 to 500 feet, climb down off the tractor or fore cart and check the depth of the seed in the soil. This is like making sure our altimeter is reading the correct height of our flight path.

If we are using a conventional drill or a cultipacker seeder, we need to determine we have a firm enough seedbed. If we cannot dribble a basketball or if our shoe sole sinks in farther than 1/8-inch, we do not have a firm enough seed bed. There is nothing more demoralizing than three weeks post seeding when we find a fantastic germination catch in the crisscross of the tractor drive-wheel tread pattern, and the field is desolately empty otherwise. This is like coming out of the pattern at the airstrip and noticing our fuel gauge is not near full! In that case, we’ll need to turn back and start over – a waste of good growing weather and perhaps not enough days left to get our spring seeding established before the hot, dry days of summer.

Are we making a long establishment of five-plus years? We may wish to consider cutting our seeding rate in half and going over the field twice in a checkerboard or slant pattern. This will reduce the distance between plants and create a thicker, more uniform sward, more quickly deterring weeds and efficiently capturing sunlight, which is particularly helpful if we are an organic producer or one that desires less overall dependence on chemicals.

Regardless of the conventional machine type used, a final pass with the cultipacker can be most advantageous to press the seeds into contact with the soil. Remember, the seed cannot imbibe water if there is air space around the seed; it must be in firm contact with soil particles for water to transverse the seed coat. Alfalfa seed needs to imbibe 125% of its own weight in water to successfully germinate.

Now that we have our stand established and growing, it is time for harvest planning. To relate to the analogy, the new airfield is in sight, so how do we achieve a nice, soft, controlled two-point landing? If it is a mixed stand of legume and cool-season grasses, make certain to cut no lower than 3 to 4 inches. The energy reserves of the grass are in the bottom several inches, and we want a rapid recovery post-swathing. Even though the legume can recover if shaved, I still recommend the 3- to 4-inch cutting height. Remember too, the lower stem portions are lower in quality, and the tendency to drag or suck up dirt into the feed is greatly increased at lower cutting heights. The resulting ash content in the forage reduces palatability and lowers energy content or the forage dry matter consumed.

My flight instructor, Dan, counsels a light hand on the stick, as quick-and-easy small corrections at the moment of inflection make a nice, even flight. It’s the same for forage establishment; easy adjustments and planning make for a long-lived, profitable stand of forage. Eighty percent of our success depends on our performance the day we place the seed into the soil.

As I approach the runway, Dan will cut the throttle back, tell me it’s a dead-prop ship, raise his hands in the air and say to me, “It’s your airplane.” It’s true on individual farms, as well; it is up to each of us to handle the acres. I hope we fly through 2020 with grace and profits.  end mark

ILLUSTRATION: Illustration by Kristen Phillips.

David Hunsberger is with King’s AgriSeeds Inc. Email Daivd Hunsberger.