Six golden rules to establish forages

There's more money made or lost in forage at seeding time than any other time of the year. That's because decisions made at seeding affect crop performance in year one and for the lifetime of the crop, says Surya Acharya, forage breeding researcher at the Lethbridge Research Centre. Acharya provides these six golden rules of forage establishment to ensure better forage stands and productivity. For

There's more money made or lost in forage at seeding time than any other time of the year. That's because decisions made at seeding affect crop performance in year one and for the lifetime of the crop, says Surya Acharya, forage breeding researcher at the Lethbridge Research Centre.

Acharya provides these six “golden rules of forage establishment” to ensure better forage stands and productivity. For alfalfa, up to two tons of dry matter are achievable in the first year (three tons under irrigation) by applying these rules, he says.

  1. Choose the right crop to get the best yield. Look for the correct forage species and variety for the purpose and local conditions. For maximum hay production, pick a species with good yield, even if it has a shorter life span. For the best economic return, choose varieties that yield well for three to four years. For a long-term stand, select for good winter hardiness and disease resistance.

    Under irrigation, it's important that species have high levels of disease resistance. For pasture, look for grazing tolerance. Plants with tolerance to grazing are very different from those best for hay production.

  2. Prepare the seed. Some forage crop seed requires preparation through scarification or inoculation before planting. Forage crops such as alfalfa or cicer milkvetch have hard seeds with waxy layers that do not absorb water well.

    To ensure successful establishment, they have to be scarified. Otherwise they can sit in the soil for three years without germinating because the seed coat is so hard,” says Acharya. Scarification may cost more, but it's worth it, he advises, even if it costs up to 10-20% more.

    Legumes fix their own nitrogen but, to be effective, legume seeds should be inoculated with nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Treated seed will establish better and produce healthier plants.

  3. Seed early. “Research clearly demonstrates that the earlier you seed in spring, the better the stand,” says Acharya. “Seeding cereal crops first and forage last is not economically viable. If forage is seeded early, you can potentially get three tons of alfalfa (dry matter) the first year. No wheat or barley crop can compensate for that.”

  4. Seed pure forage stands. Don't plant cereal or canola as a companion or “nurse” crop, says Acharya. Research shows companion crops vigorously compete with the forage crop for valuable nutrients, water and sunlight.

    “Even after four or five years, the effect of the companion crop shows up in reduced yield,” he says. “The increased forage brings in more income than that from the companion crop.”

  5. Seed shallow. For best results, plant forage seeds at a 1½2-in. depth. Because most forage seeds are small, there's not much energy in those seeds to poke through deep profiles of soil. On irrigated land, irrigate the seedbed three to four days before seeding. On dry land, direct-seed or harrow the field, then cover and pack the seed well.

  6. Mow the crop for weed control. Mow the forage crop when the seedlings are about 1-ft. high. This reduces competition from annual weeds and helps the crop stool out and quickly cover the ground. If weeds are mowed, herbicides should be unnecessary.

For more information contact Surya Acharya, Lethbridge Research Centre at 403/317-2277, or visit their Web site at

Japanese brome, a weedy annual grass, sometimes makes up as much as 40% of the available spring forage in the Northern Great Plains and is a nutritious, palatable forage for cattle. However, using it as feed for cattle can be very unpredictable.

Annual brome grasses produce anywhere from 20-600 lbs. of forage/acre, and studies show it provides adequate nutrition only for a short window of time. But, grazing animals on brome-infested pastures too early and too long can hinder the development of perennial grasses, the mainstay of livestock nutrition the rest of the spring and summer.

But, now Agricultural Research Service (ARS) researchers are developing a tool to help ranchers make the most of Japanese brome without depleting native grasses.

Besides studying how brome affects the production of preferred perennial grasses, the researchers are measuring soil moisture, soil nitrogen and precipitation to determine how well these factors predict brome productivity.

They will use this information to produce a decision-support system to help ranchers plan grazing strategies based on each year's environmental conditions.

For more information contact Marshall R. Haferkamp, ARS Fork Keogh Livestock and Range Research Laboratory, Miles City, MT, at 406/432-8211 or e-mail [email protected]

Ranchers trying to re-establish native shrubs on rangeland stripped by fire may get some help from a mini-greenhouse and windbreak.

ARS researchers designed small, plastic tubes containing a soil mixture and a seedling grown from seed in the greenhouse for two weeks.

Made of ½-in.-diameter, scored, clear plastic, the tube is pushed into the ground, with up to 3 in. remaining above ground, depending on the length and configuration of the tube being used.

The tubes serve as tiny greenhouses, protecting seedlings from wind, sandstorms and rodents. This allows the seedling to be field-planted sooner than traditional transplants, and it cuts greenhouse costs to make it more competitive with direct seeding costs.

In experimental plantings, the tubes achieved 70% seedling survival and proved effective with sagebrush, winterfat, bitterbrush, four-wing saltbush and prairie flowers. Tubes decompose in two to three years.

Bitterroot Restoration Inc. in Corvallis, MT, has established a cooperative agreement to develop a commercial revegetation system using the tubes.

For more information, contact D. Terrance Booth, ARS High Plains Grassland Research Station, Cheyenne, WY, at 307/772-2433, or e-mail [email protected].

“Research Roundup” is compiled by Diana Barto at 952/851-4678 or [email protected].