Traditional annuals and more exotic cocktail cover crop mixtures can make great forage for cattle on a temporary basis, but over the long haul a good stand of perennial pasture can be the best choice, according to Lorne Klein, a range management extension specialist, Ministry of Agriculture (Weyburn, Saskatchewan).
Select the right species and varieties for your situation and climate. Whether your basic grass is meadow brome, crested wheatgrass or something else will depend on your soils and climate.
Another thing to consider is whether there is any herbicide residue from the year before, if this was a field of annuals. Managing the residue from the previous crop is also important. “A massive amount of straw that was spread rather than chopped may interfere with seeding. Weed control is also crucial. You don’t want weeds to fight forever in that new stand. Perennial weeds, whether quackgrass, Canada thistle or some other prolific plant can be hard to control – especially if you are planting a combination of legume and grass, which a good pasture should have,” says Klein.
Planning permanent pasture involves knowing your land. If it’s good soil, you could probably use any option that will thrive in your climate.
“If you have temporary flooding on parts of the pasture, issues with salinity or gravelly, sandy areas, use a mix that includes something for all of these conditions/places, or you’ll have to go back and double seed on problem areas, using a species that will work in those specific conditions. If there’s a wetland or temporary flooding where your basic species won’t thrive, plant something else there. If there’s a salinity issue, you need species on those spots that can tolerate salty soils,” says Klein.
Light-textured soils, like sand or gravel, can be a challenge; they won’t hold water very well, and you might need a more drought-tolerant variety. “If you have a mosaic of different soils in your pasture, use a seed mix that contains something that will work on all those areas. Depending on acreage, I normally suggest picking the main species you want and seed the whole field with that – then go back and touch up the problem spots with different species,” he says. If these are large areas, however, you might use seed in those places with the appropriate species to begin with.
In some situations, a nurse crop will help determine the success and final results. “There are reasons to use a nurse crop, and reasons to not. My personal preference, because of the climate I’m in [where we can normally count on rain] is to include a nurse crop but cut back on its seeding rate and cut it for green feed – as opposed to full seeding rate and combining it,” says Klein.
“Some people tell you to not use a nurse crop, and others seed a full-rate nurse crop [oats, wheat, etc.] and combine it. I feel a full crop is too much competition for your new seeding of perennials, so I opt for somewhere in the middle.”
Sometimes you’ll get a “nurse crop” whether you seed one or not. “There will be some volunteer plants and a flush of weeds. So it’s good to use a nurse crop such as cereals with a light seeding rate, such as 25 to 30 pounds of seed per acre, for a happy middle ground. I won’t get the biggest crop of green feed, but my goal is for permanent pasture to come in strong and healthy,” he says. Forage yield in future years will be compromised if the nurse crop is competitive and inhibits your new seeding.
Timing seeding and weed control
“Timing and weed control go together in our climate, and June is usually our wettest month. For better weed control, I’m never in a hurry to seed perennial forage early in the spring. I want to let that first flush of weeds appear first, so I can burn them off. As long as I can get seed in the ground before June, just ahead of our rain, it will be fine, and allows time to get an extra hit on weed control ahead of seeding,” Klein explains.
“The important thing is to not put seed too deep. In the past, this probably happened more than it does today. Now with zero tillage and the tools we have, depth control is better. Most equipment today has individual shank control; ideally, you can put seed into the ground half-an-inch. An inch is too deep,” he says.
“I am old-fashioned, however, and don’t want to risk putting seed too deep. My personal preference [because it’s easy] is to just blow seed on with a Valmar and then harrow it into the ground. This is a bulletproof method to not put it too deep. If I start with a field that didn’t need tillage because I controlled the weeds with herbicide, the ground will be firm. If I blow seed on and harrow it in, I won’t bury it too deep. Another thing I like about that method is it doesn’t leave row spaces or bare soil. With most of the seeding equipment today, you have a row space of some kind,” says Klein.
“Depending on the grass species you use, even if you do have a wide row space, some will spread and fill in those spaces over time, but I don’t want rows at the start. The disadvantage of broadcasting seed, however, is that you are waiting for rain. With a drill, you have on-row packing. If there is soil moisture right to the top, you will still get germination right away, even without rain,” he explains. For some producers, in some locations, this could be the best option. We are always at the mercy of the weather.
Ideal seeding rates depend on the species and your goals. “Some people think it should be 10 pounds per acre when seeding perennial forages, but this can vary. When you know the species you want to plant, we can calculate how many seeds there are per pound, and how many seeds per square foot you are actually putting out there. It’s best to err on the side of too much than not enough,” says Klein.
“I’ve done calculations for producers based on species they put in the mix. If you are seeding 1 pound of alfalfa per acre, if the seed is bare and not coated, you’d be putting on about 4.6 seeds per square foot, since alfalfa has about 200,000 seeds per pound. Most of the time, however, you’d be buying seed that is coated because it’s been inoculated, scarified and then coated. Depending on thickness of the coating, this would increase the seed size by about one-third. A rough estimate would then be about three seeds per square foot,” he explains.
"Some people put on 5 pounds of alfalfa, 4 pounds of a certain grass and 4 pounds of another grass. This might mean 15 seeds of alfalfa alone, on every square foot – plus grass seeds. That’s a lot of seeds. If many things go wrong, it might be nice to have that heavier seeding rate, but if you’ve done everything right you don’t need it that high. Higher seeding rate is mainly an insurance policy. It allows you to make mistakes. But I prefer to look after the details and try to avoid mistakes, and then I don’t have to overdo the seeding rate,” says Klein.