Good forage stand requires agronomic base

Keys to success include planting at right time, proper seed bed, seed placement, quality seed and proper weed control

MONCTON, N.B. — An investment in proper crop rotations, fertility and water development are needed to get a strong forage stand.

Advice for success in the field was part of the agenda at the Canadian Forage and Grasslands Association annual conference held recently in Moncton.

Peter Ballerstedt, a forage agronomist with the seed company Barenbrug USA, said producers must pay attention to agronomy and make amendments before a single seed hits the ground.

“You are preparing something you are going to have to live with for years, so don’t skimp,” he said.

His five keys to success: plant at the right time, proper seed bed, seed placement (small seeds cannot emerge from deep planting), quality seed and proper weed control.

“There is nothing so expensive as cheap seed. You are going to save a couple cents on something that is one of the lowest cost inputs in what you are doing and hope it lasts years,” he said.

“When you have a seeding failure, your biggest expense is not the seed because you have to do it again. Your biggest expense is what happens to your feed source and grazing,” he said.

Once the stand has established, he tells producers not to delay the first grazing. Cattle clip off the tips, so the plants are forced to thicken and fill. About 10 to 15 centimetres of growth should be left. If too much is removed the plants struggle to regrow.

“Pasture should not be considered successful until you have a dense, well-tillered pasture that survives the summer,” he said.

However, don’t make heavy hay or silage crops in the first season.

“In the summer be gentle. You have other pastures you can abuse, not your new ones,” he said.

The most important things about forage are yield, quality and stand persistence.

Fertilization improves yield and profitability.

“You fertilize to make money,” said Bill Thomas, an agronomist with BJT Agronomy.

Yield is the most important factor in determining profit. As yield improves, dollars per acre go up when more pounds of beef or milk are produced.

“As yield goes up, cost per tonne goes down and gross profit for acre goes up,” he said.

Yield is limited by stand life.

The process begins with a fertility test and results vary across regions.

Tests may reveal that soil pH needs to be raised to a level of 6.6 to 7.

The benefits of agricultural lime for raising pH are huge because it increases forage yield and crop persistence. The effect lasts about three years and helps improve rhizoidal bacteria around plant roots, soil structure, yield as well as uptake of phosphorus and molybdenum.

Gypsum is another useful product. It is more soluble than lime and moves down through the soil profile faster. It does not really change the pH but can reduce aluminum toxicity and increases exchangeable calcium in the subsoil. This can improve alfalfa yields but more research is needed.

Forage stands also need sulfur, boron, potassium, potash and nitrogen based on soil test recommendations.

“Grass won’t yield without nitrogen,” he said.

Yield increases rapidly when nitrogen is applied.

Either urea or ammonium nitrate applications work.

Urea is cheaper than ammonium nitrate. The yield response is similar but plant protein levels improve when urea is used.

Plants also produce more protein with sufficient levels of phosphorus. Alfalfa will also go into decline if not enough potassium was available.

There are few herbicides approved for forages in Canada so getting a stand established early is one way to stay ahead of unwelcome weeds, said Sonny Murray, field crop specialist with Perennia.

Late-planted soils are warm so weeds can emerge quickly and compete heavily with legumes and grasses.

“In a pasture situation, we really don’t get too concerned about weeds unless the cattle refuse to go into that area and graze; then you have to step in and take those weeds out,” he said.

Timing is key when applying any products and it is important to read labels to see how long livestock must stay off the land.

Producers also need to decide how many weeds they can tolerate before control is used. Some plants cannot be grazed or mowed out.

“When you mow Canada thistle, you end up with twice as many as when you started. You usually need to spray it out,” he said.

Weeds take over for a number of reasons.

The stand may not have enough fertility if there are dandelions and plantains. The grasses may not provide enough competition to push the weeds out. Incorrect stocking rates or overgrazing can encourage unwanted plants and reduce soil fertility.

Learn to identify the weeds when evaluating a forage stand and deciding on control.

“If I have junk grasses out there, will I really improve things by removing the weeds out of that stand. It may be more economical to take out the stand entirely,” he said.

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