Planting the right forage this spring


By David Barker and Mark Sulc

As spring approaches, many of you may be planning new forage seedings.

Deciding on which species and varieties to plant can be difficult because it is influenced by many factors.

The intended use of forages and animal performance goals are important considerations when selecting forage species.

But even more importantly, you should select species and varieties adapted to the climate and soil conditions on your farm.

Variation. A difficulty in selecting adapted species for pasture seedings is that in most pastures there is a large variation in soil conditions. It is unlikely that one species will be the best across the entire area.

Pasture test. We have been collaborating with researchers in Pennsylvania to evaluate simple vs. complex pasture mixtures under grazing.

After only two years of study, we have found that maximum forage yield at a given location occurs for the best-adapted species grown alone or in simple two-species mixtures.

But the difficulty is in predicting which species will be the best overall performers, because some of the one- or two-species stands were among the lowest in yield.

Complex mixtures. This difficulty in predicting which species are best for a particular location and the variation in the highest producing species between spring and summer, suggests that forage production might be most easily maximized with complex mixtures.

In our study, mixtures of nine to 12 species provided a “safer” bet, since they had the best production over a wide range of environments, soils and seasons.

Long-term pasture. Planting complex mixtures of six to 12 species is probably best for long-term pastures.

The diversity of species gives you the most chance of having some species suited to all areas of your pasture.

Slow-establishing species can be considered where the pasture will be in place for a long time.

Short-term pasture. For short-term pastures where fast establishment is important, it is probably better to stick with proven species like clover, alfalfa, orchardgrass, tall fescue and ryegrass.

Many of you have the benefit of experience with your soils and conditions, and you know which of these or other species fit your particular situation.

Quality. After selecting the species you plan to use, it is well worth the effort to find good varieties.

Data from yield trials shows that the extra investment in seed of good varieties will pay handsome dividends over the life of the stand compared with growing old varieties or “common” seed.

New varieties. When looking for new varieties, consider the following:

* Where was the variety was bred? Only new varieties developed under your climatic conditions are likely to be better than your tried-and-true varieties.

Varieties from abroad may perform well in our environment, but many do not persist well over the long term.

Always ask for proof of adaptation, such as variety performance trials in your state or trials conducted on farms in your region when considering varieties developed abroad.

* For pasture seedings, look for data on performance under grazing.

University trials in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Iowa have forage variety results under grazing.

Ask your extension office to help you locate this data, most of which is on the Web.

* Don’t be overly enamored by a variety that is at the top of one trial. Look at performance in several environments and across several years, including trials within your state or region.

Any variety that is consistently average or above average across several environments will likely perform well for you.

* Are there any special characteristics of the variety?

Many new varieties have unique features such as insect resistance or grazing tolerance that may or may not be of use to you.

* Consider a practice of doing test trials on your own farm.

It is a good strategy to plant small areas of three or four varieties. Then for future plantings, pick the variety that performs well on your farm and that looks good to your livestock.

Compare results with your neighbors.

* Once you have selected the species and varieties, apply your best management practices possible during establishment and throughout the life of the stand.

Excellent genetics will not save you from the effects of poor management. The advantage of good genetics can only be realized with good management.

Summary. In summary, for pasture seedings, choose six or more forage species that seem best for your operation, select good varieties of those species to maximize performance and persistence, apply your best management practices throughout the life of the stand, and pray for favorable weather.

We hope you have a successful 2003 spring planting and grazing season!

(David Barker is an assistant professor and Mark Sulc is an associate professor in the department of horticulture and crop science at OSU. Questions or comments can be sent in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460.)


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The author is an associate professor in the Department of Horticulture and Crop Science at Ohio State University.