Purchasing seed for new pastures

The days are getting longer, which means spring is just around the corner! Having grown up in a warmer climate than Ohio, I like to remind myself spring will come as we head into the coldest months of the winter.

Reminding myself of spring also motivates me to prepare for its arrival.

Some tasks need to be done now in order to be ready for spring. One of those tasks is to purchase seed for new forage seedings.

So many options

Maybe you are like me when you walk into a store these days — I often feel overwhelmed by all the brands, bells and whistles available for just about anything I want to buy.

But if I take the time to do a little homework, I can walk into a store with the information I need to make a purchase that will best serve my purpose at a price I can live with.

The same can be said for purchasing forage seeds. Studying the options available will help you determine what varieties will best fit your field and management situation.

So let’s discuss a few of the important considerations in purchasing new forage varieties.

The “common” problem

There is a very big temptation to purchase “common” seed (“variety unstated”) because it is usually much less expensive than seed of named, certified varieties.

But studies across the country have shown what you “save” from buying common seed is usually short-lived.

The problem with “common” seed is you really can’t be sure what is in the bag, so you can’t be sure how it will perform on your farm.

You could be planting seed that is not well-adapted to your region.

Yield trials by the University of Kentucky showed common, uncertified seed lots of red clover purchased in Kentucky varied greatly in yield.

Some seed lots yielded only 10 percent of the check variety Kenstar, while others yielded 90 percent of Kenstar.

So you have to decide you’re feeling lucky when you buy common seed. The evidence suggests there is much less risk and better results if you buy seed of known identity.

Yield and adaptation

High yield is so important because many of the input costs don’t vary as yield increases. So the more yield produced with the same inputs, the lower the production cost per ton.

Select varieties that are adapted and will yield well in your region. Study university variety performance trials.

Ask your extension agent and friends about good varieties. Ask your seed dealer for information on the performance of the variety on farms in your region.

Grass varieties in particular are developed in many parts of the world and sometimes are sold with very little initial testing in our environment.

Make sure there is information available on its performance in your region, or test it first on a small area of your farm.

We test forage varieties each year in Ohio. Results are available at county extension offices, or online at http://www.ag.ohio-state.edu/~perf/.

Variety trial results in other states can be found at http://www.naaic.org/resources/yields.html.

Disease resistance

Improved varieties have higher yield and longer stand life, primarily because they have better disease resistance.

Good examples of this include newer alfalfa and red clover varieties.

In a trial comparing older and newer alfalfa varieties, we found the newer varieties had higher yields and better stands than the older varieties.

The advantage of the newer varieties increased as the stand aged because specific diseases killed susceptible plants in the older varieties.

We have tested red clover varieties that maintained productive stands into the third year. “Common” red clover had no stand left in the third year (2008) because of diseases.

The best varieties survived into the third year and produced nearly 5 tons of dry matter per acre.

Some diseases can reduce animal intake, such as rust in ryegrasses, festuloliums, orchardgrasses and tall fescues.

If you’ve had trouble with a disease on your farm, ask your seed dealer if varieties are available with resistance.

Grazing tolerance

When establishing pasture stands, ask the dealer for information on the grazing tolerance of the variety. Some varieties withstand abusive grazing management better than others.

The University of Kentucky is an excellent source for information on yield and stand persistence of forages under stressful grazing management.

That information is available online at http://www.uky.edu/ag/forage/ (click on “Forage Variety Trials”).

Maturity differences

Grass species have always differed in maturity. For example, orchardgrass is typically very early to mature, while timothy and smooth brome are late maturing.

When planting mixtures, select species that are fairly similar in maturity. This will make it easier to manage grazing and harvesting.

You can now find a wide range in maturity among varieties within a species.

For example, there are large differences in maturity among new orchardgrass varieties, as well as within annual ryegrasses.

The new late maturity orchardgrass varieties are compatible with alfalfa maturity. The early maturity varieties work better with white clover mixtures.

Late maturity orchardgrass varieties are also a good option when planting mixtures with other grasses because they have a better fit with the quality and palatability profile of the later maturing species.

One disadvantage of late maturing varieties is they often cost more. This is because later maturing varieties tend to produce lower seed yields, so it costs more to produce each pound.

But the higher cost may be worth the investment, depending on your goals.

Avoid antiquality factors

Some forage species have characteristics that reduce animal performance.

A good example is endophyte-infected tall fescue. The endophyte reduces weight gain and harms reproductive performance, among other problems.

Improved endophyte-free tall fescue varieties have resulted in much higher stocker weight gains than endophyte-infected KY-31 tall fescue.

There are some grass-based dairies in southern Ohio where endophyte-free tall fescue is being used effectively and profitably for lactating herds.

Tall varieties are now available with new non-toxic endophytes, which have also shown improved gains compared with the old toxic endophyte-infected tall fescues.

The non-toxic endophyte provides the advantages of stress tolerance, drought tolerance and insect resistance to the plant without harming the animal.

Wrap up

As you plan your new forage seedings for this spring, remember the best investment is to purchase seed of improved varieties of known genetics that have been tested in your region.

They will yield more, persist longer and ultimately produce more weight gain or milk from your land.

So spend a little time learning what is available and purchase seed that best fits your situation and goals.

I hope this New Year brings you a successful and enjoyable grazing season.

About the Author

The author is an associate professor in the Department of Horticulture and Crop Science at Ohio State University. More Stories by Mark Sulc

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