Fixing up a forage stand
If the last forage harvest of the season didn’t yield well or livestock were left with poor quality grazing at the end of the season, it might be time to consider refurbishing.
Dr. Katie Payne, applied forage systems specialist, Virginia Polytechnic University, suggested planning well in advance to establish or refurbish a stand for grazing, dry hay, silage or stockpiling. “You don’t want the stress that leads to mistakes,” she said. “It takes a minimum of six months to a year to plan. Know what you want based on what’s adaptable to your area.”
She suggested selecting species that will do best in the environment and are adapted to the soils and conditions on the farm. Selections should produce the amount of forage to meet nutritional requirements, whether it’s grazed or fed as stored feed. Select seed that’s drought and heat tolerant and well-adapted to the end use. Seed doesn’t necessarily have to be the highest yielding option if it meets nutrition goals. If a newly established stand will be used for more than one purpose (such as both grazing and hay), consider those uses when selecting seed.
Legumes such as crimson clover, Austrian winter peas and hairy vetch added to grasses often work well for cool season production, but legumes can be difficult to overwinter. Brassicas can be added for high digestibility and soil benefits. Annual ryegrass can yield well and is a high-quality forage, but Payne said some farmers are reluctant to use it because it can result in weed problems in other cropping systems.
Weeds must be under control prior to planting a new stand, and this step can take time. Select the appropriate herbicide for the weeds that need to be controlled and apply at the correct rate and growth stage. If refurbishing is the goal and livestock will continue to graze, be sure to follow any labeled grazing restrictions. Keep in mind there is no herbicide that can kill broadleaf weeds without killing clover and other desirable legumes.
One weed management method is using smother crops. For this practice, Payne recommended killing sod and problem weeds in late summer followed by seeding a small grain at a higher than normal rate. “Normally we would plant small grains at 90 to 120 pounds per acre,” she said. “Seed at a higher rate (120 to 150 pounds per acre) to get a denser stand for a smother crop, and harvest in spring for hay or silage.”
Another option is to plan for a summer-seeded smother crop, which involves killing sod and problem weeds in late spring, seeding a summer annual in early June or July and harvesting in late summer. Following these steps, be prepared to spray and seed in autumn. Payne said the most effective method for converting toxic endophyte tall fescue to novel endophyte fescue is to combine the two methods: use the autumn smother crop in summer to control weed seed that’s being produced that year, then prepare to plant.
“Adjusting soil fertility is the number one priority,” said Payne, referencing the steps for refurbishing. “Take soil samples two to four inches in pastures and hay fields. In pastures, because nutrients are being recycled, sample every two to three years.” Because hay harvest removes a percentage of nutrient inputs, she suggested sampling hay fields annually.
To obtain the most accurate results, avoid taking samples from or close to animal congregation areas such as waterers, feeders, fence lines and near gates. Consider differences in soil types throughout the pasture due to landscape changes such as wooded areas or areas that have been heavily grazed.
For farmers who have limited funds for inputs, Payne recommended adjusting the pH as the primary goal because it directly affects nutrient availability. Aim for a pH of 6.2 to 6.8 depending on forage species, then adjust phosphorus and potassium according to soil test results.
Payne suggested nitrogen applied at a low rate (30 to 50 pounds/acre) at establishment to limit weed competition. If a stand is more than 30% legumes, nitrogen may not be necessary. Phosphorus and potassium should be applied according to soil tests, and those nutrients applied in autumn can help plants with cold tolerance.
When planting into existing sod, reduce plant residue to get better soil-to-seed contact and less competition for light, water and nutrients. Sod growth can be suppressed through hard grazing or herbicides. Good soil-to-seed contact is essential whether the planting method is no-till, min-till, conventional seeding, frost seeding or allowing livestock to trample seed into the ground.
“Frost seeding is used a lot in late winter or early spring for planting red and white clover,” said Payne. “It doesn’t work as well for grasses and alfalfa.” Seeds must reach bare soil and undergo adequate freeze-thaw cycles, and even seed distribution is a must. Frost seeding success is enhanced by some level of disturbance, such as livestock traffic.
The goal with min-till is to reduce existing residue and disturb about half the sod with light tillage. Seed can be broadcast or drilled, followed by a cultipacker or dragging for good soil-to-seed contact, which helps control competition as seedlings emerge. No-till, which can be done in spring or autumn, requires more effort and attention to detail but produces consistent results.
“No-till is often best for alfalfa establishment,” said Payne. “Suppress the sod and reduce residue to get the drill into the ground.” She cautioned farmers against trusting the settings on a rented or borrowed drill, and said it’s critical to calibrate the drill correctly prior to seeding.
“Calibration is important to get the right rate onto the field,” she said. “Most failures in establishment can be related to calibration and seeding depth, so always double check before planting.” After seeding, control post-seeding competition. Newly emerged seedlings don’t tolerate competition.
Some other forage system considerations include autumn grazing management to use forage that isn’t stockpiled. If the farm is not set up for rotational grazing, this may be an option for making the best use of what’s available.
Forage and hay testing will provide information on nutritional value, another tool that helps make the best use of available feed. The hay test can provide a guide for the quantity of hay needed over winter.
by Sally Colby
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