Replacing “Junk” Forage with “Quality” Forage

Christine Gelley, OSU Extension Educator ANR, Noble County

Do these comments sound familiar to you?:

  • “I really need to do something with that junk pasture this year.”
  • “The bales off that hayfield are junk. I’m going to reseed it.”

Issues with “junk forage” can include low yields, weed encroachment, and low-quality feed value. Forage growers tend to lament over junk forage two of the four seasons of the year. One is the summer, when their hay equipment is running, their animals are grazing, and the forage is right in front of their eyes. The other is winter, when forage is in short supply, quality issues are leading to low animal productivity, and when pastures look more like mud spas. The time to make progress on correcting the factors that lead to junk forage is primarily in spring and fall.

Summer is the season for evaluation and making plans for improvement. Before implementing solutions for that junk forage, understanding what factors contributed to stand decline is crucial.

One of the first solutions often considered is reseeding the field. Reseeding could be one of the solutions for turning pastures around, but if you give it more thought, there could be other factors to address.

Before committing to reseeding, make sure you have completed a recent soil test and made corrections for pH and nutrients. In many cases, applying lime and/or fertilizer can yield quicker and more economical results than reseeding. If adjustments are necessary and you still think reseeding is a good idea, choose a forage that will survive in the soil you have now. In general, it takes ag lime six months to effectively raise soil pH.

Sites that have overly acidic or overly alkaline soils often have issues with weeds as well as reduced yields. Correcting soil fertility and pH in combination with leaving adequate forage stubble after haying or grazing will improve the ability of established forages to compete with weeds. Overgrazing and/or mowing too short will stress forage regrowth. Identifying the weeds in your forage stands and using an integrated approach for control that includes addressing soil health, forage regrowth, and appropriate herbicides has the potential to be more effective than reseeding.

Forage quality is an attribute that is tied to forage stand composition, soil fertility, and forage variety, but the most important factor is maturity of the plant. Whether the forage is harvested through grazing or mechanized means, it should be harvested before it develops seed to yield the best nutritional quality. As plants mature, quality is reduced, but yield increases. Managers should make every effort possible to balance good quality forage with good yields. Poor harvest timing is a common cause of “junk forage”.

After considering current site management, decide whether you should reseed, what to use, and how to get it accomplished.

For perennial forages, fall seeding is often preferred to spring because weed competition is reduced. Most perennial forages should be planted in mid-august in Ohio for best success.

Annual forages will only last for a short time but can increase the flexibility of your operation or serve as a cover crop while you decide on the next crop. Summer annuals like sorghum-sudangrass or teffgrass can be seeded as late as mid-July. Winter annuals like rye, wheat, and triticale can be planted in mid-august for fall and/or spring grazing or wet wrapped as baleage or chopped for silage. Brassica crops like turnips and radishes can be seeded at the same time, intercropped with other annuals or perennials or on their own and provide good grazing into late fall and early winter. Spring oats can also be incorporated for the same time frame.

Shop for improved seed varieties for best performance. New varieties are released each year. Reliable and proven seed will come with a detailed seed tag and source information. Avoid seed labeled “VNS”, which stands for “variety not stated.”

When it comes to site preparation and seeding, consider the size of your seed and the uniformity of the soil surface. If you intend to broadcast the seed, terminate existing forages, till and drag the soil, and make sure the seedbed is firm. This will allow good seed to soil contact that is critical for uniform germination. Drilling into existing cover is another option, which is preferred for seed that will be sown on highly erodible soils or needs to be placed deeper into the soil profile. Ground cover should be suppressed by close grazing and/or herbicide application before drilling the seed.

Whatever means you use to sow the forage, always take the time to inspect the machinery, calibrate it for the seed you are using, and test a small area before pouring all the seed into the hopper. One of the most common causes of stand failure is seeding too deep or at the improper rate, which can usually be corrected during calibration.

For additional help with forage management and establishment, consult the Ohio Agronomy Guide, Chapters 7 & 9 or your local extension educator.