Frost seed now for better stands later

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SALEM, Ohio - For Monroe County farmer William Thomas, his John Deere Gator plays an important role on the farm: it’s his principal tool in frost seeding.

Thomas frost seeds alfalfa into his wheat fields as a good way to get a second crop off the land.

“It’s real easy and nice to put in, and it works real well,” he said.

The Gator allows him to go over the wheat crop in its early stages - typically in January through March – without doing too much damage, he said.

And though some years have better results than others, Thomas said it’s all worth it in an attempt to get two crops off his acreage near Woodsfield.

What it is. Frost seeding, simply put, is an effective, low-cost method to introduce new forage species into existing sod and to seed forages into other crops.

The method also works to maintain forage composition of pastures.

The most common method of frost seeding is the broadcast spreader.

To add more attractiveness to the method, Mother Nature does the work for you.

Overgrazed. Last year’s drought caused many declines in pasture production across the region, and overgrazed pastures were more the norm than the exception.

Overgrazing is not a result of the number of animals grazing, but the amount of time plants are exposed to grazing animals, according to Mark Landefeld, an agriculture and natural resources extension specialist from Monroe County.

“This often happens in a continuous grazing system, but this year’s drought conditions made it worse,” he said.

When plants are severely grazed, or re-grazed before a sufficient rest period has elapsed, the plant takes energy that has been stored in the roots as carbohydrates to support new leaf growth.

As carbohydrates are removed from the roots, the root dies, separates from the plant and eventually decomposes.

The process continues until the leaf surface develops enough to catch solar energy to support additional leaf growth and reestablish lost roots, he said.

Depending on the severity of root loss, slow regrowth may be noticed for a period of a few weeks to three months or more.

Maintain plants. Frost seeding may be a way for the farm manager to re-establish plants and maintain forage composition or introduce new species of plants.

Areas chosen for frost seeding should not have large amounts of plant material remaining in the field.

If it does, allow animals to graze the area closely before seeding.

“If there’s much of a thatch layer, the seeds won’t get down and make contact with the soil,” he said.

Best seeds. Frost seeding works best with legume seeds, because it is easier for small seeds to fall to the soil surface than it is for grass seeds, which are generally larger but lighter.

However, grass seeds may work well this year since there is little plant residue remaining in most fields and openings in the sod are more abundant.

“Last year, a lot of guys let their animals graze late so they didn’t have to feed as much hay. There’s not a whole lot of residue in the fields,” Landefeld said.

Benefits. Frost seeding encourages legume growth in fields and can minimize production costs by reducing the amount of nitrogen fertilization necessary for maximum forage growth.

In addition, legumes also improve the quality of a grass stand.

Frost seeding offers several potential advantages when properly implemented, including establishment of forage in undisturbed sod; reduced labor, energy and cash expense compared to conventional tillage methods; the ability to establish forages with minimal equipment investment; and little, if any, “non-grazing” period.

When compared to tilled seeding, there’s another obvious benefit, Landefeld said.

“With this, you don’t lose production. If you till the land up [and start over] you’re going to lose a good portion of the growing year. The key is to manage frost seeded land so you don’t kill the seedlings,” he said.

Seed now. Late winter is a good time to frost seed pastures.

The freeze and thaw cycle of the soil helps seeds that are broadcast on top of the soil to obtain good soil-to-seed contact.

This is necessary if seeds are to grow and compete with established grasses, other legumes or weeds.

“Start thinking about it now. The ground is still completely frozen and as the freeze-thaw starts soon, that gives a good chance for the ground to honeycomb.

“The seeds fall into the cracks and get good ground contact that way,” Landefeld said.

Spring management. In the spring, excessive growth competition should be reduced. Frost seeded pastures should be grazed at regular intervals.

Do not allow animals to graze plants low enough the first or second rotation to ruin new seedlings before adequate roots are developed, Landefeld said.

“Let the new growth get at least 2-3 inches high.

“A good way to look at it is like you would trim your lawn. You don’t want to [graze] an inch off today and then come back tomorrow and take another inch off. It’s not good for the plant,” he said.

For more information on frost seeding, contact Landefeld at 740-472-0810 or your county extension office.

(You can contact Andrea Myers at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at amyers@farmanddairy.com.)

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Frost seeding rates per acre

Frost seeding planting mixtures and seeding rates differ greatly.

As a rule of thumb, if legumes are already present in the pasture, 3 to 4 pounds of red clover and 1 to 2 pounds of ladino or alsike clover seed per acre works well.

Birdsfoot trefoil could also be used at 2 to 3 pounds per acre.

Recommendations. If no legumes are present in the stand or if you’re seeding one species alone, doubling the above rates may return better results, said Mark Landefeld, ag agent in Monroe County.

If grasses are to be frost seeded into existing pastures, perennial or annual ryegrass, orchardgrass, or smooth bromegrass would be recommended.

Perennial/annual ryegrass should be seeded at 2 to 3 pounds along with orchardgrass 1 to 2 pounds or smooth bromegrass 8 to 10 pounds per acre.

Seeding down. When planting, using a spinner type seeder. Don’t mix legume and grass seed together, because grass seed will not spread as far as legume seed and the stand will be uneven.

Make two trips over the pasture and adjust spacing as needed for the type seed being sown, Landefeld said.

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