Forage Seeding; Do you always have time to do it over?

– Dr. Jimmy Henning, Extension Professor, Forage Specialist, University of Kentucky

You always find time to do it over.

My father used to tell me, “You never have time to do it right, but you always find time to do it over”. You can imagine the context. In defense, it is human nature (at least my nature) to be in a hurry, to skip steps in a process that seems to be less than absolutely necessary. Few processes on the farm provide as much temptation for this ‘skip a step’ thinking as forage establishment.

The following is a typical exchange (modeled after an actual conversation).

Farmer: “How soon can you plant alfalfa behind alfalfa? I had a thin stand this spring that I sprayed out to plant soybeans.”
Me: “A year is what we usually recommend; it depends on how thin the old stand of alfalfa was. The autotoxicity factor is water soluble and with all the rain we have been having, planting this fall is an acceptable risk.”
Farmer: “OK. Now how late can I plant alfalfa this fall?”
Me: “Boy that is a little tough. We usually say by September 15. Why?”
Farmer: “Well I want to get the soybeans harvested first.”
Me: “When will that be?”
Farmer: “October.”
Me (thinking): Time out, game over, risk has just gone off the charts. Time to get a new plan.
What I said: “Let’s just wait until spring for the alfalfa.”

Sometimes, we just try to do too much. In this case, the risk of poor establishment due to autotoxicity of alfalfa was compounded by the high probability of failure for an overly late fall seeding. I can almost hear my father saying, “This is sure fire way to get to do it over”.

Right now, we find ourselves in the slump period of Kentucky cool season pasture fields. Cool season pastures especially are crunchy with drought, or seemingly overtaken with crabgrass (actually a good pasture plant) or johnsongrass or other more troublesome weeds. The more you look at these fields, perhaps the more you want to clean them up, renovate them or completely re-establish them.

It is a good time to remind ourselves of the basics of establishment. Even though we can and sometimes do bend these principles, following them remains the best way to ensure success.

Drill calibration is a key step to forage establishment. Taking the time to get it right will save money by getting fields back into production sooner.

  1. Pay attention to the soil resource. Make sure the soil is fertile enough with the right depth and drainage to produce. Having a current soil test is essential and apply needed fertilizer. You may have to wait for another rain to get a soil probe in the ground, but get the sample taken and put out the fertilizer.
  2. Address the weeds. The older I get, the less risk I like. Get aggressive with weeds. If you need to use two applications of a broad spectrum herbicide like glyphosate (Roundup® is one trade name), do it. If you are trying to deal with problematic broadleaf weeds in grass pasture, use one of the new chemistries that are available now. If there is a planting restriction for replanting of clover, don’t fight it, work with it. Plan to use this period to thicken up the stand with nitrogen management. Add clover when the replant interval has been satisfied.
  3. Understand the seeding implement. No-till drills are commonly available, but they need proper calibration, especially for seeding rate and depth. Even if you are renting the drill by the acre, strongly consider cross-drilling the field. You will pay a little more in drill rental but will get quicker ground cover from the cross-seeding.
  4. Use good seed and use enough of it. Perhaps this is the easiest principle to follow because of the extensive amount of information about forage varieties on the UK Forages web site ( and the OSU Forage Trial site ( Seed placement is very imprecise with forage crops because they are so small, so do not skimp on pounds of seed per acre.
  5. Plant on time. The late planting window for the example above is what made this scenario unlikely to succeed. Plan ahead, start now for a late summer seeding.
  6. Plan for some stand maintenance in the first year, such as weed control. We commonly experience a flush of weeds in many new seedings, so plan for it. Keep an eye on the field, as weeds are much easier to control when they are small. Even if the only tool is timely mowing, be ready.

Being a little more focused and (for me) a little less in-a-hurry can pay big dividends in forage establishment.

Happy foraging.

EDITOR’s NOTE: Dr. Jimmy Henning will be featured speaking on Making Successful Long-Term Hay and Pasture Seedings during the OSU Beef and Forage Night on August 24 in Jackson.