Forage plants are most vulnerable to stress during establishment. Consequently, a forage/livestock producer should exercise a higher level of management and more attention to detail during the establishment process than at any other time. Many acres of forage crops are planted in Alabama in the spring, so it’s a good time to review some major considerations.
Crop And Variety Selection- Many failures result from an attempt to grow forages not really well-adapted to a particular site. When uncertain, it makes sense to seek advice from others who have good training and/or experience. Also, once a decision has been made regarding what species will be planted, variety selection can affect yield potential, forage quality and stand persistence. Cutting corners by selecting low-cost seed of inferior varieties is false economy.
Soil Amendments- Even if the soil in a field is well-suited for the crop(s) to be planted, it may be necessary to apply lime to increase soil pH or to apply fertilizer nutrients. The only way to know what needs to be applied is to take a soil test. This should be done several months ahead of planting so any needed lime can be applied and have plenty of time to react.
Seed- Seed should have a high germination level and contain low levels of other crop seed, weed seed and inert matter. Also, since seed are actually tiny, dormant plants, they need to be protected until planted (a rule of thumb is that the temperature in terms of degrees F and the humidity should not add up to more than 100). If legume seed are not pre-inoculated, the inoculants should ideally be stored in a refrigerator until inoculation is done just before planting. Using good quality seed doesn’t guarantee successful establishment, but using poor quality seed practically guarantees failure.
Planting Date- Weather plays a major role in determining the proper time to plant, and there is usually a fairly short period of time during which planting conditions are optimum or near optimum. To miss this period can mean the difference between success and failure. Weather conditions often delay plantings, so it is advisable to plant as early as possible within the recommended period.
Seeding Rate And Depth- Seeding rate recommendations are readily available from universities and commercial seed companies. It is advisable to use at least as much seed as is recommended; perhaps more if planting conditions are less-than-optimum. Planting depth is critical, with planting seed too deeply being the most common reason for poor stands. When planting a small-seeded forage crop like clover with a drill, about 10 percent of the seed should be visible on the soil surface, otherwise much of the seed is probably being planted too deeply.
Seed/Soil Contact- Seed typically have to absorb more water than they weigh, and firm contact with the soil helps ensure this happens. With small-seeded forage crops, a well-prepared, fine seedbed together with use of a cultipacker to firm the seed into the soil facilitate good seed/soil contact. When small-seeded forage crops are planted, the soil should be firm enough before planting that when one walks over it, your shoe heel should not leave an imprint more than ½-inch deep.
Monitor Young Stands- It pays to keep a close eye on a young stand and be ready to treat for weed or insect pests if necessary. When first grazed, the seedlings need to be large enough they will not be seriously damaged by animal hooves and will not be pulled up by the roots when grazed.
Don Ball is an Extension Forage Crop Agronomist with Auburn University.