Techniques for Establishing Quality Pasture

Plant the seeds of a long-term investment in the form of thriving grassland.

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Whether you’re starting from scratch on previously uncultivated land, or taking on the restoration of conventionally cultivated fields, establishing a new pasture begins with soil preparation.

Begin with a soil test before planting a pasture. A traditional soil test measures pH, phosphate, and potassium availability in soil, and is a good place to start. Many other soil tests are available too, such as those for micronutrients. The more information you have about the soil, the better the decisions you can make. If you have cropland that’s been tilled and received only commercial fertilizer in the past, a transitional soil test may be all you need. If the land has been no-tilled or cover-cropped, received manure or compost applications, or been in pasture for many years previously, there may be organic forms of nutrients that won’t show up on conventional soil tests. In this case, a Haney test or similar test that predicts nutrient release from organic sources may be useful.

Correct pH and Deficiencies

Brown soil sample close up.

I’m a fan of using natural processes to supply fertility as much as possible, but these natural processes require an active biology, and if you’re starting from degraded soil, it’ll be a long, painful process to create that active biology. I prefer to see immediate results, so I still like to get the pH in shape with lime, take care of sodium issues with gypsum, and get any necessary mineral nutrient levels up to snuff with fertilizers.

I prefer carbon-based fertilizer material, such as manure, sewage sludge, or compost, for mineral nutrients. It’s often difficult to get enough of these materials to do the trick, however, so I still lean on commercial fertilizer when starting a new pasture. My established pastures rarely, if ever, get any fertilizer; if you start out with a good supply of nutrients, you shouldn’t need any later, because the components will cycle back through manure and urine over and over. Monitoring soil nutrition with grid-based soil sampling is advisable, although you can also use a Haney test or similar test that takes organic materials into account.

Pile of manure on an agricultural field with steam rising.

Controlling the plants you already have is usually necessary, since most perennial seedlings won’t compete with existing vegetation. I prefer to kill existing vegetation with glyphosate, rather than tillage. I’m fully aware of the soil biology problems glyphosate causes, but I feel it’s far less destructive than tillage, and using it doesn’t bring up a fresh crop of weeds each round.

Prepare the Seedbed

The physical condition of the soil is important to the success of a pasture seeding. Good germination and establishment requires a firm seedbed for good seed-to-soil contact. Soil that’s too loose and fluffy will lack enough contact with the seed to transfer the necessary moisture to allow it to germinate and establish.

Pile of fresh animal manure at the end of plowed and prepared for planting vegetables…

There are two ways to get a firm seedbed. The first is to till repeatedly to get the soil powdered down. The second is to distribute seed into undisturbed soil. I’m lazy, and the do-nothing approach saves money and moisture and prevents erosion and weed problems, so that’s what I prefer.

Invest in Good Genes

A pasture planting is a long-term investment. It’s always amazed me to see a farmer go to multiple field days and plot tours and read test plot results over several months to select a corn hybrid that’ll be in the ground for a full five months. But, when the same guy goes to plant a pasture that may be there for the rest of his life, he walks into the local co-op, asks, “What’s the cheapest grass seed ya got?” and walks out with endophyte-infected Kentucky 31 fescue. Then he spends the rest of his life lamenting that you just can’t make money from pasture, so he plows up every square foot of grass he can, only to lose money planting another acre of corn on marginal ground.

A pasture planting may provide 50 years of harvests. If you choose seed with the best genetics available — even if it costs an extra $20 an acre to plant — it may provide an extra ton of yield per acre per year for 50 years. That extra $20-an-acre will eventually return an extra 50 tons of forage per acre over its lifetime. That’s a small investment for a large return.

Increase Seed Density

If I could give one piece of advice on planting a pasture, it would be to always seed more than you think is necessary. Planting too much seed will cost far less than the loss of a year’s production from an unsatisfactory stand that needs replanting. Of course, this advice is usually ignored, and most people plant a little less than the amount I suggest. I am a seed salesman, so I do stand to benefit from my recommendations, but I also take pride in giving good advice.

I get a lot of calls that start with, “Hey, do you suppose I could get by with planting [fill in the blank amount] pounds per acre of [fill in the blank species] and get a good stand?” When someone prefaces their question with the phrase “Do you think I could get by with …” they’re really saying, “I’m about to do something I know is stupid, but I want you to give me your blessing so I can blame you when it blows up in my face later.”

Green orchardgrass close-up.

The bottom line is: Plant plenty thick. I’ve never had a customer tell me they planted too much seed a year after seeding. Many of them have told me they planted too little trying to save a few dollars, lost a year of production, and had to replant.

Go Deep

Seeding depth is important, particularly in low-organic-matter soils with little crop residue coverage that are prone to crusting. A general rule of thumb is to plant seeds at a depth of eight times their diameter. Seeding depth should be slightly shallower in clay soils and slightly deeper in sandy soils.

Soils with more organic matter are generally more forgiving of incorrect planting depth. They’re less prone to crusting, so seedlings can emerge more easily, and they hold more moisture, so shallowly planted seeds won’t be as prone to drying out. Soils with thin, complete crop residue are also more forgiving of incorrect planting depth, because they’re less prone to both crusting and drying out.

Chicory, wild flower and grasses in a field.

I like to apply a thin layer of compost or well-rotted manure prior to planting a pasture or planting into a killed cover-crop mulch; it makes for a forgiving seedbed. Too much manure, or manure that’s too fresh and contains too much free ammonia or salt, may burn seedlings.

Research the correct seeding dates to give plants the best chance for success, and do your best to plant during these times. The best seedbed in the world can’t make up for seeding too early or too late.

Limit Pest Damage

Insect control may be necessary to get a stand going, particularly if you’re interseeding legumes into an existing grass stand. Crickets are the biggest culprit in that case, but grasshoppers can also be a big issue. Of course, one option is just to spray an insecticide and take them out. The drawback of this approach is that you destroy the entire insect population, including all the beneficial and benign insects, along with the pests. I prefer to use a protozoan bait containing Nosema locustae. It takes several weeks to kill the crickets and grasshoppers, but it’s specific to those insects and doesn’t harm any other insects, spiders, or insect-eating birds. Armyworms (which are actually caterpillars) can also be an issue. They can be taken out with insecticide as well. I prefer spraying with a Bacillus thuringiensis-based spray, which will kill only caterpillars and spare other insects. Of course, any caterpillars that aren’t pests will also be killed by this treatment, but it’s the most targeted treatment currently available.

Two goats in green paddock.

Troubleshooting New Pasture

The following are a few common pasture problems and their likely causes.

  • Failure to germinate: Seedbed too wet or too dry; seedbed too cold or too hot; seed dormant or not viable; or seedbed too loose, offering insufficient seed-to-soil contact.
  • Germinated but failed to emerge: Seed planted too deep; herbicide residue, especially dinitroanilines and acid amides; crusted soil surface; grubs, wireworms, or other seed-attacking insects; too hot or too cold; Pythium, Phytophthora, or other seedling disease; or soil too wet or too dry.
  • Seedlings emerged but died: Cutworms, crickets, grasshoppers, armyworms, or other seedling-­eating insects; Pythium, Phytophthora, or other root-attacking disease; soil too wet or too dry; lack of legume nodulation; pH at surface too low or too high; insufficient fertility; herbicide residue, especially triazines and sulfonylureas; excessive competition from other plants; or winterkill, especially if planted too shallow and soil is dry and loose.

Productive Pasture Plans

The following are recipes for highly productive pasture mixtures. Grass-only blends allow for herbicidal broadleaf weed control, but require nitrogen fertilizer for good production and don’t produce the animal performance of mixtures that include legumes and forbs. When using these mixtures, be sure to read the descriptions and add, omit, or adjust seeding rates of components to fit your soil, management conditions, and current prices. For example, adding green wheatgrass to a mix is warranted on salty soils, but probably not on other soils. The rates given are in pounds per acre.

Dairy cattle in summer meadow at sunset.

Grass-Only Warm-Season Pasture Mix

  • Eastern gamagrass (6 pounds)
  • Big bluestem (2 pounds)
  • Indian grass (2 pounds)
  • Grass-Only Cool-Season Pasture Mix
  • Meadow brome (5 pounds)
  • Orchardgrass (5 pounds)
  • Nontoxic endophyte fescue (5 pounds)
  • Low-alkaloid reed canarygrass (3 pounds); replace with 6 pounds green wheatgrass on salty soil
  • Smooth bromegrass (1 pound)

Winter Stock Grazing Pasture Mix

  • Nontoxic endophyte tall fescue (20 pounds)
  • Alsike clover (2 pounds)
  • Bird’s-foot trefoil(2 pounds)
  • AberLasting hybrid clover (1 pound)
  • Small burnet (1 pound)
  • Optional: fourwing saltbush, winterfat, ‘Snowstorm’ forage kochia

Two- to Three-Year Pasture Mix

  • Alfalfa (6 pounds); will require bloat control
  • Red clover (5 pounds)
  • Bromegrass (5 pounds)
  • Festulolium (5 pounds)
  • Intermediate ryegrass (5 pounds)
  • Chicory (2 pounds)
  • Plantain (1 pound)

Western Dryland Cool-Season Pasture Mix

This mix is suited to areas with 14 to 20 inches of annual rainfall.

  • Intermediate wheatgrass (8 pounds)
  • Western wheatgrass (2 pounds)
  • Pubescent wheatgrass (2 pounds)
  • Smooth bromegrass (2 pounds)
  • Alfalfa (2 pounds)
  • Yellow blossom sweetclover (2 pounds)
  • Sainfoin (2 pounds)
  • Chicory (1 pound)
  • Burnet (1 pound)
Eastern Gamagrass in park

Diverse Warm-Season Pasture Mix

  • Eastern gamagrass (4 pounds)
  • Big bluestem (1 pound)
  • Indian grass (1 pound)
  • Alfalfa (3 pounds)
  • Birdsfoot trefoil (2 pounds)
  • Chicory (2 pounds)
  • Plantain (1 pound)
  • Annual lespedeza (1 pound)

Green grass growing.

Diverse Cool-Season Pasture Mix

  • Meadow brome (3 pounds)
  • Orchardgrass (3 pounds)
  • Nontoxic endophyte fescue (3 pounds)
  • Low-alkaloid reed canarygrass (2 pounds)
  • Alfalfa (3 pounds)
  • Red clover (3 pounds)
  • Chicory (2 pounds)
  • Plantain (1 pound)
  • Ladino clover (1 pound)
  • Smooth bromegrass (1 pound)

    The health and profitability of grass-based livestock begins with the food they eat. In Managing Pasture, author Dale Strickler guides farmers and ranchers through the practical and ideological considerations behind caring for the land as a key part of running a successful grass-based operation, from the profitability of replacing expensive grain feed with nutrient-rich native grasses to the benefits of ecologically-minded land management. Dale Strickler is a leader in the soil health movement, an agronomist for Green Cover Seed, and an author. This is an excerpt from his book Managing Pasture, used with permission from Storey Publishing.

  • Updated on May 18, 2022
  • Originally Published on Feb 12, 2020
Tagged with: Chicory, Eastern Gamagrass, Orchardgrass, pasture
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