General Planting Tips

text published at:

I visited a young dairyman a while back, a grazing convertee, who planted 40 acres with some of my very special seed from Holland. What I expected to see was a solid mass of shimmering, emerald green, ryegrass but that was not the case. The coverage was a disappointing 65% at best. Telltale 6" wide rows and large gap spots, all caused by using a grain drill, punctuated the entire field. Is this mistake fatal? No, but it is expensive--lost seed and productivity. I see improper seeding practices so often that a few words now might keep some of your plantings from meeting the same doom. AGAIN, THINK OF A PASTURE AS A BIG LAWN. Everyone knows how to plant a lawn. We work the bed, fertilize and lime it, then roll it to firm it so it will hold moisture for seedling life. We then broadcast the seed with a spinner or free fall drop seeder so to have seeds randomly spaced all over the surface (Note: Oregon State University recommends coverage of at least one seed every square inch for a good forage stand.) We check the seed pattern to make sure, adding more seed if needed. WE THEN RAKE LIGHTLY TO COVER THE SEED ABOUT 1/8TH OF AN INCH, THEN ROLL IT AGAIN which makes the soil hug the seed, ensuring that the subsurface moisture will wick up to the seedling.

Note: The biggest single cause for stand failure is lack of soil packing or consolidation. So many farmers plant seed in a soft fluffy, flour-like seed bed caused by beating the soil to death with a rototiller or a disc, and believe they are doing the correct thing, when they are actually creating a disaster. These soft beds do not allow the subsurface moisture to wick up to the root zone, or surface water to penetrate. The seed germinates, then soon dies of thirst! If the seed bed is fluffy, wait for a good rain, or apply irrigation, then roll or cultipack to firm it, then plant seed and roll again. The seed bed must be firm, and preferably moist, before you put down the seed.

You should not plant grass seed with a grain drill unless you have no other option. These drills are designed to plant grain seeds in wide 6 or 7" rows and much deeper than we plant grass seed. (Note: If you must use a grain drill, seed very shallow, and seed in both the NS and EW directions.) So what do you really need to plant a super grass stand? A spin seeder (a fertilizer broadcaster will do, or a grain drill with the tubes disconnected and flopping which scatters the seed), a chain harrow and a cultipacker or heavy roller. Nice to use is the Brillion brand cultipack seeder, which broadcasts, covers and cultipacks in a single operation. Used Brillion seeders are available at auctions. In 1992, I bought a five foot, 3-point model with a grass and clover seed box for $300.00. No one else even bid.

I am asked almost on a daily basis if there are easier ways to establish or renovate pasture other than the traditional complete plow-up, full cultivation seeding. Full cultivation seeding achieves the best results, and all other methods less, in decreasing order of effectiveness. For purposes of discussion, let us peg full cultivation at 100% effective. Also, it is important to realize that the only grass species that can be effectively introduced without full cultivation or without the use of killing, or burn back, herbicides is annual or perennial ryegrass. Generally, other cool season grass species such as tall fescue, orchard grass, timothy and brome just aren't aggressive enough to fight for share space in an existing stand without the use of advantage giving herbicides.

The answer to the question is YES, there are other ways to plant. At the very basic end, there is the age old frost seeding method of renovation which relies on the early Spring freeze-thaw action which cracks the ground surface to plant new seed. Ryegrass here is the seed of choice. Clovers also do well. Frost seeding, I would judge to be 25% effective (25 of 100 seeds thrive). Going up the ladder of effectiveness is broadcasting in early Spring, or late Fall, followed by harrowing and a good cultipacking or rolling. This covers much of the seed and gives the seed the needed firm ground contact. I often use this method and get good results, maybe as high as 50% seed establishment Next up the ladder is no-till seeding. Using herbicides, one can establish most, if not all, grass species into either a killed sod, or introduce a new grass into a still living but burned back stand of old variety grasses. I have had good results in no-tilling perennial ryegrass without the use of herbicides.

It is important in this case to drill into very short grass, either just after mowing or following a close grazing. Regardless of what method you choose, it is critical that you keep livestock off that field until the seedlings are established and firmly rooted, or you will end up where you began, with zero. This is why I do most of my renovation in the Fall when the cows are sold or moved to their Winter sacrifice area. This gives the baby seedlings a chance to grow in a hoof free environment. It pays.

My favorite way of establishing a new pasture involves my favorite and only plow, the simple and readily available chisel plow. The chisel plow is superior because it breaks up and stirs the top six inches of soil, where all the goodies lay, instead of turning everything upside down, burying the top soil and micro organisms as does normal plowing. My low-tech eight step method is as follows:

  1. Get the grass short.
  2. Irrigate to make the soil moist, or wait for a good rain so the soil will pack.
  3. Chisel plow in NS and EW directions breaking up the existing sod.
  4. Rototill just until the sod clumps and soil clods are broken up. Some lumps are OK.
  5. Cultipack the ground until it is firm.
  6. Broadcast seed at the high end of the recommended seeding rate, e.g., perennial ryegrass at the rate of 35 lbs/ac.
  7. Lightly harrow using the smooth side of a chain harrow.

Cultipack again, in NS and EW directions. I do not use an herbicide, so my new ryegrass pasture when established is 95% new grass and 5% of the old, which I find very acceptable. My method is quick and simple, and my pasture is back in service in less than 12 weeks.

If I plant tall fescue or orchard grass using this non-herbicide, chisel plow method my ratio of new to old would probably be 80%/20%, and because these varieties are slower to establish, the pasture would take longer to establish, perhaps 16-20 weeks.

A good practice is to always grow out some of your new bought seed in a flower pot, or in your garden, so you can identify the new plants in your pasture. Also as a check on the germination rate.

Home Classroom Seed Shop MFS Order

Modern Forage Systems
Fax: 360-933-0202 / Toll Free: (800)972-1812