Establishing Ideal Pasture Seeding Plans

Published on Tue, 01/12/2021 - 10:27am

Establishing Ideal Pasture Seeding Plans

 By Maura Keller.

 A successful pasture seeding plan is part art, part science, and a lot of hard work. In addition to understanding the land, weather patterns and the science behind pasture seeding, beef and dairy producers also need to meet the evolving needs of their livestock at every turn. And that’s where seeding professionals come in—not only can they offer guidance in identifying and establishing ideal pasture seeding programs, they also are on the leading edge of seed innovations that can dramatically impact a producer’s bottom line.

Renk Seed doesn’t offer any set plans, rather they believe pasture seeding plans should all be specific to the customer’s needs. “We carry one generic pasture mix, Mountain Brand Pasture Mix, which is a good blend of alfalfa, clover and grasses, which covers all the bases,” says Alex Renk, co-owner at Renk Seed. Although he would probably recommend a more tailored plan for large acreages. Renk Seed also carries alfalfa, clover, festulolium, orchardgrass, timothy, ryegrass, and brome for custom blending.

Needs assessment is also extremely important to the Pennington Seed  team and in the realm of forage operations, no two scenarios are alike. As Drew Denman, business development manager at Pennington explains, Pennington’s team consists of not only agronomists, forage specialists and territory managers that are dedicated to identifying and meeting the needs of beef and dairy producers, but they do so through some of the most qualified dealers in the country.

Pennington Seed’s lineup includes both warm and cool season annual and perennial proprietary forage species.

“The Pennington territory managers, alongside their dealer network and support personnel, offer one-on-one consultation and guidance with the goals of the producer being kept at the forefront,” Denman says. “The ability to have direct lines of communication with regional specialists provides producers with local expertise and in turn increases their opportunity for success.”
S&W Seed Company also offers alfalfa seed through their Alfalfa Partners brand, plus forage sorghum and sorghum-sudangrass through the Sorghum Partners brand.

As Robin Newell, alfalfa products director at S&W Seed Company explains, alfalfa is a very strong legume component of rotational pastures. Alfalfa produces more protein per acre than any other legume and should be considered as a strong component of any rotational pasture scheme.

“Sorghum-sudangrass and forage sorghum hybrids also are great choices to augment the summer slump associated with most cool-season grasses in grazing and pasturing situations,” Newell says.

When identifying the most appropriate pasture seeding plans for cattle or dairy herds, one of the key strategies to take is tailoring seeding to the animal that will be grazing. As Renk explains, dairy cattle require a higher level of nutrient intake—this means a higher percent of alfalfa and/or clover.

“It also important to have a grass that compliments the legume portion,” Renk says. “I usually push festulolium as it matures at closely the same rate as alfalfa, tends not to choke it out and also has a higher feed value than other grasses.” For beef cattle, the legume content is not as important and ranchers can look more at raw tonnage coming from grasses.
Once the target animal as well as the basic composition of the pasture species is decided on, then farmers and ranchers need to evaluate the characteristics of the available land. For example, on well-drained soils Renk always leans towards alfalfa over clover for the simple reason that far more resources have gone into breeding improved alfalfa varieties than clover.
“On wetter soils I move to clover as it will handle wet feet far better than any alfalfa,” Renk says. And when planting legumes and grasses together, it is vital to watch the mix as too much grass can choke out the legumes before they can establish.

“Orchardgrass and timothy should be no more than six pounds per acre, while the festulolium should be 15 pounds and ryegrass can go as high as 10 pounds per acre,” Renk says.

Of course in the farming and ranching industry, timing is everything. Normally producers have the spring and fall as the key windows for planting pasture, so it’s important to have a plan in place for one of these times. Renk says fall seeding can work well, provided you have enough moisture and time for the pasture to establish before winter.
“I like to see at least eight inches of growth before the plants go dormant,” Renk says. “Spring is normally the easiest time to setup a pasture but also one of the more hectic times of the year as far as farm activity.”

Newell recommends dairy farmers and cattle ranchers observe and evaluate their current pastures during the productive season.  If the species mix and/or productivity isn’t what you intend or need, then consider your replacement or interseeding options and make plans early.  

“There can be several preparatory steps leading up to the actual seeding or interseeding process,” Newell says. “These might include lime and fertilizer additional, tillage or herbicide suppression of existing species. And in many cases it will be important to develop alternate forage plans while new seedings become established well enough to be grazed productively.”

There has been recent talk about regenerative agriculture, which many cattle and dairy farmers have been practicing for years. “With new varieties and hybrids, we rely on farmer feedback as well as University research,” says Brad Doyle, sales director at Eagle Seed Co. “Creating a long-term plan works best for fertility management and rotational grazing.”  

Eagle Seed helps farmers evaluate the goals and purpose for their pasture land and then researches and discuss the best options with them. “We offer most all pasture and hay types seeds and special order when needed,” Doyle says. “And we encourage soil sampling and will review the results to make sure the crop reaches its full potential.”

Tug-of-War Seeds is a nationwide seed company, offering many pasture mixes that have been carefully crafted and selected for palatability and feed values for various regions, climate and soil conditions.

According to Eric Engh at Tug-of-War Seeds, a typical consultation with a farmer or rancher will give us a strong idea of what we will recommend to go into a field. They want to know what the farmer/rancher wants out of a mix, so they can determine whether the land can produce that expectation.

“We ask a series of questions to help gauge what is needed to deliver the proper result. No two farms are the same, so it is important to offer a mix/plan that will provide the highest relative feed values, palatability, and forage/nutrient qualities that dairy and beef cattle require,” Engh says. “We have many legumes, grasses (warm and cool), and grains, for almost any kind of mix needed to achieve those results.”

The team at Tug-of-War Seeds does pride itself in not having a “one size fits all solution,”  but they also offer decades of experience in grasses that work well together in specific regions of the country.

“Most of the time one of our standard mixes will get the job done, but we will not back away from creating a unique blend,” Engh says.  

Creativity is also the backbone for Barenbrug, which offers a wealth of research and development to determine exactly what producers need. As Luke Wilson, market development manager at Barenbrug explains, one example of company’s innovativeness falls with NutriFibre, a new grass technology for silage production.

“The foundation of NutriFibre is soft-leaf tall fescue, a development stemming from the Royal Barenbrug Group’s international breeding program ‘Grass for highly productive dairy cattle’. NutriFibre technology combines mineral efficiency, high protein production, digestible, effective fiber-rich cell walls and rooting intensity.

“We are focused on what producers need and we research the best genetics,” Wilson says. “And then producers work with our distributors to develop the best plan for their needs.”
An Evolution of Sorts
The opportunity to meet the needs of a producer is greater now than ever. As Denman explains, not only does seed quality continue to be a top priority, intensive management of both the forage crop in focus and the production live­stock that are consuming it, are driving forces in realizing full potential.  

“The Pennington forage lineup consists not only of varieties that our foundation was built on, but also of recently released products utilizing some of the latest technology available,” Denman says. An example of this foundation product upgrade is that of the first novel endophyte tall fescue, Jesup MaxQ. Pennington’s original prod­uct was released over 20 years ago and since then the company has introduced three other varieties with the most recent being Jesup MaxQ II containing the latest endophyte technology.  

“As forage planning continues to push the boundaries of available days of grazing, the selection process as well as the management practices become even more important,” Denman says.

Engh also says that innovation is the name of the game, but the more things change the more they stay the same.

“The basic grasses still produce the best. Newer varieties are introduced, but fescue is still fescue at the end of the day,” Engh says. “Seeding rates are not so much an innovation, but an evolution.”

Within the dairy and ranching industries, there also seems to be more recognition that dry matter production is maximized through rotational grazing. According to Newell, well-managed rotational grazing opens the door for including more productive species that only survive well over time when given an appropriate recovery period between relatively shorter and more intense grazing periods, as opposed to continuous grazing and over-grazing.

“An amazing development on the horizon for forage sorghum is coming in the form of dhurrin-free forage sorghum and potentially sorghum-sudangrass,” Newell says. Dhurrin is the precursor to prussic acid in sorghum species, so removing dhurrin eliminates the potential for prussic acid poisoning when grazing the plants.  

“The dhurrin-free hybrids will not only take the worry out of forage sorghum and sorghum-sudangrass for late season grazing, it will also make these high dry matter production crops more useful to fill in late-season as well as summer grazing needs,” Newell says.

And remember, it’s never too early to start the planning process. According to Denman, there are some pasture renovation plans that begin years ahead of the first seed being planted, and others that must be made in the heat of battle as weather or circumstances either provide opportunity or challenge. For instance, when planning to renovate a Kentucky 31 pasture to a novel endophyte variety, it is imperative that seed head management is paid close attention to well prior to the renovation process.

“Don’t be afraid to lean on those around you for advice,” Denman says. “No matter what forage you are working with or whether you are fortunate enough to have good conditions or if they are challenged, there is someone, probably more often than you think, that has either tried with success or lack thereof exactly what you are planning.”

Mistakes To Avoid
In addition to exploring new developments and avenues within pasture seeding, it’s important that producers also try to avoid some common mistakes that can wreak havoc on pasture seeding plans.

For example, avoid the temptation to turn cattle in on new seedings too early. Let new seedings become well-enough established to tolerate the hoof trampling and top growth removal that comes along with grazing and pasturing. As Newell explains, most species used in pastures are very tender when young and can be more prone to damage in the establishment phase, so it’s best to avoid grazing too soon, graze lightly if at all during establishment, and give ample recovery time for young plants to establish more robust roots and crowns that can be more resilient and productive over time.

One of the biggest mistakes Doyle sees producers make is not soil sampling pastures by region or acreage. Rolling pasture land can have a lot of variance. This zone sampling would be similar to grid sampling in crop land.

“Understanding what is in the soil and what your budget is to maximize tonnage will help in the planning of pasture or hay field development,” Doyle says. “For instance, how pure should hay be if selling to customers? Are weeds allowed? Knowing what your customers want is very important.”

Partnering with a seed dealer, extension specialist or local expert and focusing on soil fertility prior to developing a plan, is a step that is often skipped. “This paired with seed selection are two of the greatest controllable inputs when evaluating a forage program,” Denman says. “Often, producers unfortunately place price ahead of quality in the seed selection process and at times there might seemingly be no other option.”

The least expensive route may not be your best choice, keeping long term goals in mind. Providing value added products that will provide peak performance and longevity resulting in greater return on investment is our focus.

When planning pasture seeding, it’s also vital that producers remember that pastures should not be treated as a closed system. As Renk explains, your livestock are taking nutrients off the pasture that will not be replaced by the manure left behind. This means that high producing pasturage needs fertilization to maximize its potential.

“Maximizing return for acre is just as important in pasture as it is in for row crops,” Renk says.  “Also monitoring your pasture’s health is part of any future seeding plan. Rarely can you plant a pasture and expect it to maintain the level of production of the first couple of years. Seeing which species thrives and which struggled may help in deciding which species to seed the next go around.”