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Grass seeding requires timing, persistence

Wendy Sweeter for Progressive Cattleman Published on 24 February 2017
Ray Smith, University of Kentucky Extension forage specialist

Most producers know the usual amount of rainfall in their area, but doing a soil test in the fall can help identify deficiencies before spring. Preparing the soil for seeding should come next.

If producers are looking to seed a new pasture, Millborn Seeds forage specialist Justin Fruechte says the ideal seedbed would be planting into soybean stubble. He relates that grass needs a firm seedbed just like planting alfalfa.

“It’s planted shallow when the soil is firm, not loose and fluffy,” says Fruechte, whose company is based in Brookings, South Dakota. “If for some reason it had to be worked up, and maybe you do have to work it and get it black, that’s fine. I would roll it before you plant it because that’s going to firm it up. That’s usually when you get the best soil-to-seed contact.”

Ray Smith, University of Kentucky Extension forage specialist, says frost-seeding with clovers into an existing pasture is ideal, although most producers in Kentucky and the South seed grass in the fall or late summer. In Kentucky, September is the ideal month to seed cool-season grasses.

“We’ve found over many years that the fall is the best time to establish because the plants are well rooted going into the following summer, and if they’re seeded in September, then they have sufficient growth. They’ll be no problem making it through the winter.”

However, Smith expects to see more grass seeding this spring due to dry conditions this fall. He projects some failed seedings, as well.

Fruechte suggests frost-seeding into existing pasture. The freezing-thawing process buries the seed in the soil.

Germination for most of the introduced cool-season grasses, such as orchardgrass, fescues, ryegrass, timothy or brome, can take seven to 10 days. Native grasses in the upper Midwest, like big bluestem, green needle grass, western wheat grass or indiangrass, will take seven to 21 days to germinate. Native grasses will be slower to get established, Fruechte says.

“It’ll take them a full year to really be there. The introduced grasses, you can get a hay cutting that first year and you might even be able to graze in the fall because it will establish a lot quicker. Native grasses, I would wait a whole year before you harvest them or graze it,” Fruechte says.

He notes that the cool-season grasses are going to be more productive and more persistent than the native grasses – but not as long-lived and not as hardy in terms of drought tolerance. As a result, he suggests planting a good mixture of cool-season and native grasses.

Smith says for producers in his region, they should be seeding as early as possible this spring if they are going to do it. Most of his producers will plant cool-season grasses such as orchardgrass, Kentucky bluegrass and novel endophyte tall fescue.

He recommends the novel endophyte tall fescue because the traditional Kentucky 31 tall fescue produces alkaloids that cause heat stress and other issues in beef cattle.

“When someone says, ‘I want to plant an improved pasture,’ one of our main recommendations is to plant an improved tall fescue. We particularly like the novel endophyte that helps the plant survive but doesn’t have the toxins,” Smith says.

Both suggest planting a legume to boost the amount of available forage. Smith recommends Ladino white clover to improve the quality.

“I really encourage people: If they want really high-quality pasture, clover is a great way to improve the quality,” Smith says.

The University of Kentucky has been doing a study where they are looking at planting the novel endophyte tall fescue. They spray in mid-summer and again in late summer, then drill into the killed-out stand.

“There’s some cost to that and some time out of production, but that keeps there from being a major tillage and breaking up the sod. That works best with a fall seeding,” Smith says.

Fruechte says planting red clover into existing pasture would give the biggest bang for the buck in his region.

“It’s easier to get a legume established into a pasture versus a grass into an existing grass pasture,” Fruechte says. “It’s cheap to plant. You can broadcast it really, really early in the spring or, in the winter, frost-seed it.”

If producers are dealing with weed problems, Fruechte suggests waiting for the first flush of weeds to green up, then kill them off before planting grass. Leaving the weeds there means producers will have a fight the rest of the growing season.

He also notes that producers who saw dry conditions in 2016 on their native grasses, those could come back. However, some of the introduced cool-season grasses could have problems.

“We do have issues with some of the introduced grasses which will actually die off if it gets too dry, especially if it’s dry and we have a hard winter. That’s the hardest for them,” Fruechte says.

“I would say most of the areas that were drought-stricken in South Dakota this year will bounce back because we had enough snowfall and enough moisture to wake up and get going in the spring.”  end mark

PHOTO: "We’ve found over many years that the fall is the best time to establish because the plants are well rooted going into the following summer, and if they’re seeded in September, then they have sufficient growth. They’ll be no problem making it through the winter." Photo provided by John Heard.

Wendy Sweeter
  • Wendy Sweeter

  • Freelance Writer
  • Worthing, South Dakota
  • Email Wendy Sweeter

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