Your forage yield won’t improve if you don’t do anything differently


Are you getting adequate forage production from your pastures and hay fields? Are you getting maximum weight gains from your livestock with the forage species you have in your paddocks?

Do you have paddocks or fields that you think need renovated? How much forage should my paddocks and hay fields be producing per year?

Can I just frost seed to increase production? Can I change my management practices to increase quality and yield?

Attending to these questions, and maybe more, will help put more dollars in your pocket.

Ultimate goal

Having thick dense stands of high quality forage is the goal of successful graziers.

Paddocks with dense stands of forage help to improve livestock dry-matter intake, increase the pasture’s carrying capacity and increases the length of the grazing season in spring and fall to decrease the amount of higher priced stored feed necessary.

Good management practices influence everything in production. Whether it’s controlling livestock so they graze forages in a timely manner or mowing and harvesting hay at the correct time, decisions the manager makes effect the product.

Should I renovate?

Sometimes I’m asked “should I renovate my pastures and/or hay fields?” Before any renovations are undertaken, I suggest producers evaluate the farm’s forage production and your livestock’s needs. It’s important to consider how and when the current forage is being used (i.e., grazing vs. hay).

If additional forage is needed, one should determine when it is needed as well as what quality of feed is required to meet your livestock’s needs.

High-producing dairy or beef animals that are lactating need much different quality feed than say, beef cows the first 60 days after weaning their calf.

Also, most producers don’t need more feed at the end of May, but would be enthused to have extra pasture the end of October.

Start at the beginning

Soil fertility is the place to start. A good random sample of soil from the pasture(s) should be obtained and analyzed at a laboratory.

If nutrients are below recommended levels for the type plants you desire in the pasture, add the appropriate amount and type of nutrients. pH is a great place to start because plant uptake of nutrients has a high correlation to pH. Phosphorus encourages root development and potassium is essential for growth and reproduction.

If nitrogen (N) is used, it is best applied in small quantities when establishing new legumes in seedings. Numerous applications of N could be made for maximum growth, but you don’t want to smother legume plants by promoting excessive grass growth.

Frost, no-till seeding

The next decision is to determine if a complete reseeding is needed, or if desired improvements can be reached by the addition of new seed. Seldom is complete renovation required in pastures if fertility and pH are corrected.

Frost seeding would be an option or a no-till drill could be used to add seed. In either case, reducing the vegetative cover on the soil surface should be done to allow maximum seed contact with the soil and allow new plants to get needed sunlight for a good start.

Heavily grazing the area before planting is a way to remove excess vegetation.

Select seeds to be planted based on your soils and how you plan to use the forage. Red and white clovers work well as legumes for both hay and grazing. Grasses may also be incorporated, but if they are applied with a broadcast seeder you should not mix them with legume seed because the grass seeds weigh less and will not fly as far as the legume seeds while spinning them on.

Make two trips over the field for a more consistent application.

With a no-till planter, all type seeds can be sown at the same time using different boxes on the planter.

Which variety?

Keep in mind some of the new seed varieties yield much more than old varieties, so the cost difference may quickly be repaid with additional tonnage.

According to Mark Sulc, OSU Extension forage specialist, the 2012 forage trials demonstrate the importance of selecting adapted varieties with a proven yield record across locations.

“In our trials in 2012, individual alfalfa varieties varied in yield from 14 to 20 percent depending on location.”

Improved red clover varieties yielded up to 53 percent more than common (VNS) medium red clover. White clover varieties differed in yield by as much as 12.6 percent, tall fescue varieties differed by up to 7 percent yield, and annual ryegrass varieties differed by up to 42 percent yield.

Results from the 2012 Ohio Forage Performance Trials are now available online at

Forage performance, grazing and persistence trials are also conducted at the University of Kentucky. Their 2012 data may be viewed at:

Planting rates. As a rule of thumb, if legumes are already present in the pasture, 3-4 pounds of red clover and 1-2 pound of ladino or alsike clover seed per acre works well. Birdsfoot trefoil could also be used at 2-3 pounds per acre.

If no legumes are currently present in the stand or seeding one species alone, doubling the above rates may return better results.

Also, remember to inoculate legume seed with the proper inoculum when planting. Inoculation is especially important when seeding legumes into soils where no legumes have been grown for several years.

If grasses are to be seeded into existing pastures, perennial or annual ryegrass, orchardgrass, or smooth bromegrass would be recommended. Perennial/annual ryegrass could be seeded at 2-3 pounds along with orchardgrass 2-3 pounds or smooth bromegrass 8-10 pounds per acre.

Promoting legume growth in pastures has multiple effects. Legumes can fix nitrogen in the root nodules to provide the nitrogen for that plant and surrounding plants. Red and white clover varieties have been shown to produce 100-200 pounds. of nitrogen per acre per year.

Livestock producers should note, additional weight gain and increased conception rates have been documented when including legumes in forage stands. (See Table 1 and Table 2.)

High quality forages are always good to have, but it takes good management to consistently produce them. A critical step after frost seeding or no-tilling seeds into pasture, is weed control and grass control. Many producer’s attempts to add legumes fail because established grass is allowed to out-grow the small young legume plant.

Established grasses and weeds must be kept short in seeded areas by grazing or mowing until legume plants get 3-4 inches tall. Stop grazing or mowing at this point and allow plants to become established.

After this, good rotational schedules should be maintained to keep legumes in good condition.

For more information about adding legumes to your pastures or meadows contact a member of the OSU Extension Forage Team. Names and contact information may be found on the Forage Team website under “Directory.” The OSU Forage Team website address is:

(The author is an OSU Extension Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension Educator in Monroe County, Ohio. Questions or comments can be sent in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem OH 44460.)

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