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Establishing Winter Pasture: Start Out Right

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Productive winter pasture can be a valuable asset, but can also be expensive to establish and grow. Following are five items that will help your winter pasture start out right.

First, determine what kind of winter pasture is best suited to your location. This article will only address wheat and cereal rye, our primary winter pasture species, although other options include oats, triticale, annual ryegrass, brome grasses, tall fescue and cool-season legumes. Wheat is better adapted to heavier soils and lasts longer in the spring, while cereal rye is better adapted to lighter soils and provides earlier grazing in the fall. Select the forage or forage mixture that fits your location and meets your forage demands.

Second, collect good quality soil samples and have them analyzed at a reputable agricultural laboratory. A good quality soil sample will be representative of the field, collected to the depth recommended by the lab, be a composite of at least 15 soil cores and represent no more than 40 acres. Phosphorus, potassium and lime requirements can only be determined by soil analysis. If these are deficient or if soil pH is below 5.5, production potential and response to nitrogen fertilizer will be reduced. Phosphorus and potassium should be applied prior to or near planting while lime should be applied well before planting to allow it time to react. Nitrogen rates are based on yield goal unless a sensor-based system, like the Greenseeker®, is being used. Nitrogen application timing depends on when the forage is needed. If fall or early winter grazing is the priority, apply most or all of the nitrogen near planting or soon after emergence. If spring grazing is the priority, apply enough nitrogen to get the crop started in the fall and the remainder in late winter or early spring.

Third, prepare a good seedbed. Seedbed preparation can be clean till, minimum till or no till. Stand establishment is usually quickest with a weed-free, firm, clean-till seedbed; however, this is the most expensive method and increases the risk of soil erosion. Minimum till preparation may consist of mowing, haying or grazing standing vegetation short and/or burning down with a herbicide followed by light tillage. No-till preparation is similar to minimum till without the tillage, although managing summer growth and previous crop residue becomes more important.

Fourth, select a planting method and seeding rate. Planting methods include drilling and broadcasting. Advantages of drill planting include improved plant spacing, lower seeding rates, better seed to soil contact and proper seeding depth. Seeding rates for drill planting range from 90 to 120 pounds per acre. Disadvantages are slower planting speed and higher equipment costs. Broadcast planting involves spreading the seed over the seedbed surface, then incorporating it into the soil with a disk, culti-packer or other light tillage implement. Advantages of broadcast seeding include faster planting speed, lower equipment cost and the ability to spread with fertilizer. Disadvantages are higher seeding rate, lack of depth control, requirement of a second pass for incorporation and a higher risk of stand failure. Seeding rates for broadcast planting range from 120 to 150 pounds per acre.

Fifth, select a good variety with quality seed available. Variety selection can be complicated by seed availability, but try to find one that has produced well over several years and/or locations in university trials. Using good quality planting seed is just as important as using the right variety. If time permits, have an accelerated aging test conducted to have an indication of the seedling vigor as well as viability.

By paying attention to these items and with a little cooperation from Mother Nature, you have taken the first steps toward productive winter pastures. Next, be ready to manage post-emergence weeds, insects, diseases and grazing.

James Locke is the former planned consultation manager and a senior soils and crops consultant. He can be found on LinkedIn.