A good forage stand requires agronomic base

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

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Glacier FarmMedia – Farmers seeking to build a strong forage stand need to use proper crop rotations, fertility and water development, a forage agronomist told a recent Canadian Forage and Grasslands Association conference in Moncton, N.B.

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

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Why it matters: A strong forage stand can be a good feed provider for years and can help improve soil health.

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

He offered five keys to success:

  • plant at the right time;
  • seed into a proper seed bed;
  • appropriate seed placement (small seeds cannot emerge from deep planting);
  • use quality seed;
  • use 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.”

Once the stand has established, he told 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,” Ballerstedt 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.”

The most important factors 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 lamb, or milk are produced.

“As yield goes up, cost per tonne goes down and gross profit per 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.

Using agricultural lime to raise soil pH can pay off because it increases forage yield and crop persistence. The effect lasts about three years and helps improve rhizoidal bacteria around plant roots, soil structure, and the 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,” Thomas 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.

Plant protein levels also improve with sufficient levels of phosphorus and in alfalfa, stands will decline if not enough potassium is 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,” Murray said.

Weeds take over for a number of reasons. The stand may not have enough fertility if there are dandelions. 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.

This article was originally published at the Western Producer.

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