Establishing Pastures and Hayfields: Fall Conditions Ideal

Cool temperatures and abundant rainfall create ideal conditions for forage producers to establish or thicken grass pastures and hayfields.

"The continuous rainfall this summer was very good for forage growth, and soil moisture levels are ideal across most of the state," said Ray Smith, MS, PhD, forage extension specialist in the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture.

These conditions are welcome news for many forage producers. The droughts of 2007 and 2008 made it difficult to establish new stands of cool-season grasses, such as orchard grass, tall fescue, and Kentucky bluegrass.

Producers who want to establish forages this fall should do so as soon as possible, Smith said. Ideal seeding dates for cool-season grasses are during the month of September, particularly early September, as this gives the new forage stand enough time to get established before the first frost.

It is extremely important to test soil before seeding. It allows producers to know the nutrient content of their fields and may save them money on unnecessary fertilizer applications. UK provides soil testing services. Kentucky producers can submit soil samples to UK through their county extension agent. Smith recommends that producers in other states also work through their local Cooperative Extension Services.

Producers need good weed control before seeding. Mowing or grazing will help control competitive summer annual weeds. When completely re-establishing a new pasture or field, it is important to use one or more applications of a herbicide containing glyphosate to kill the existing field. If the goal is simply to thicken an existing pasture or field, then the producer can spray a broadleaf herbicide to kill weeds. In either case, producers should follow the instructions on the herbicide label or recommendations in UK publication AGR-172 in order to allow enough time between the application and seeding. As a general rule, apply herbicide when daytime temperatures are above 60 degrees.

Tilling the seedbed is the most effective establishment method, but sod seeding using a no-till drill is preferred on sloped ground. Planting seeds too deeply is one of the most common causes of stand failure. Producers should plant forage grasses and legumes no deeper than one-fourth to one-half inch.

It is important to plant an adequate amount of seeds. The best way to ensure this is to plant the highest recommended seeding rate. For example, if AGR-18, "Forage and Crop Seeding Guide," recommends 15 to 20 pounds per acre, then 20 pounds is best. While using high seeding rates is a costly initial investment, low yields and weedy fields caused by thin stands will cost producers more money in the long run, Smith said.

It can take up to a year to fully establish new grass stands, but a good rule of thumb is to refrain from grazing or cutting until next spring. Then when horses are turned out, graze the fields lightly the first few rotations and provide a good rest period between grazing or hay harvests.

More information on pasture and hayfield establishment is available through publications on the UK forage Web site at Pratt, agricultural communications editorial officer

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