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Commodities: Field Crops: Forages

Forage Establishment Guidelines

John M. Woodruff, R. Gregory Durham, and Dennis W. Hancock


Forage establishment techniques can vary widely depending upon forage species, location, soil type, pasture situation and intended use. Using good establishment techniques are essential to getting good high yielding forage stands. Listed here are some basic considerations for forage stand establishment.

General Preparations
Seeding Considerations
Inoculants for Legumes
Seed Bed Preparation
Forage Planting Equipment
Vegetative Establishment
Field Sprigging Techniques
Sprigging Dates
Weed Control for Sprigging
Pasture Renovation
Overseeding Grass Pastures with Legumes

General Preparations

Soil testing and applying appropriate lime/fertilizers are very important first steps for preparing sites for productive forage production. High phosphorus fertilizers are likely needed for forest land sites. Using dolomite lime, high in magnesium, is beneficial for both plants and animals. Tillage to incorporate lime and fertilizer into the top soil layer is especially important for getting good growth of legume forages. Leveling and firming the soil to prepare a uniform seed bed can aid in getting a good forage stand.

Competitive weeds can greatly suppress or destroy new forage stands. Crop land or old pastures with problem or noxious weeds may require several weed management treatments before planting or sprigging new pasture species. Their competition can be greatly reduced by pre-plant tillage, reduced nitrogen rates during establishment, and selected weed management treatments. See the current GA Pest Management Handbook and the pest management page of www.georgiaforages.com for a list of appropriate herbicides for each specific situation. Close, frequent grazing or mowing can also be used to reduce weed competition during forage establishment.

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Seeding Considerations

Many forage species can be propagated by seed. For these, it is imperative to get good seed and to use good seeding techniques. To insure getting the desired variety and high seed quality, one should use only certified seed. Buying cheap, bin run seed can result in getting off type species, poor germination and often stand failures. See the web site above “Forage Species for Georgia”, or the GA Crop Performance Test data bulletin for more information on forage variety test data for GA. Most legumes will require a specific inoculant, nitrogen fixing bacteria, for good growth and performance. Appropriate inoculants for each legume are listed below.

Table 1 below provides general seeding information for forage grasses and legumes

Table 1. Forage seeding information.*

 

 Forage Crop

Pounds seed
 per bushel

Approximate number
seeds per pound

Seeding rate
pounds/acre

Seeding depth
inches

Seedling
vigor

GRASSES:

Bahiagrass

46

273,000

15-20

¼ - ½

P

Barley

48

14,000

90-120

1-2

G

Common hulled Bermudagrass

40

2,070,000

5-10

0 - ½

F

Browntop Millet

14

140,000

25-30

½ - 1

E

Crabgrass

25

825,000

8-12

¼ - ½

G

Dallisgrass

14

300,000

10-15 (PLS)

¼ - ½

P

Foxtail Millet

50

213,000

20-30

¼ - ½

E

Johnsongrass

28

119,000

20-30

½ - 1

G

Oats

32

15,000

90-120

1-2

E

Orchardgrass

14

416,000

15-20

¼ - ½

F

Pearl Millet

48

82,000

12-15 (drilled)
25-30 (broad)

½ - 1

E

Rescuegrass

10

52,000

20-30

0 - ½

P

Rye

56

18,000

90-120

1-2

E

Annual Ryegrass

24

224,000

20-30

¼ - ½

G

Sorghum

50

24,000

15-20

1-2

G

Sudangrass

45

43,000

30-40

½ - 1

E

Switchgrass

55

280,000

5-6 (PLS)

¼ - ½

P

Tall Fescue

25

227,000

15-20

¼ - ½

F

Timothy

45

1,152,000

6-8

¼ - ½

F

Triticale

48

15,000

90-120

1-2

G

Wheat

60

11,000

90-120

1-2

E

 

 Forage Crop

Pounds seed
per bushel

Approximate number
seeds per pound

Seeding rate
Pounds/acre

Seeding depth
inches

Seedling
vigor

LEGUMES:

Alfalfa

60

227,000

15-20

¼ - ½

G

Alyceclover

69

301,000

15-20

¼ - ½

F

Annual (Korean) Lespedeza

59

238,000

25-30

¼ - ½

F

Arrowleaf Clover

60

400,000

5-10

¼ - ½

F

Ball Clover

60

1,000,000

2-3

0 - ¼

F

Bigflower Vetch

60

32,000

20-30

½ - 1

F

Button Clover

60

153,000

15-20

0 - ¼

F

Cowpea

60

4,000

100-120

1-2

E

Crimson Clover

60

150,000

20-30

¼ - ½

G

Hairy Vetch

60

16,000

20-25

1-2

E

Red Clover

60

272,000

12-15

¼ - ½

E

Rose Clover

60

164,000

8-12

¼ - ½

F

Sericea Lespedeza

60

372,000

12-15

¼ - ½

P

White Clover

60

768,000

2-3

0 - ¼

F

PLS = Pure Live Seed
* From PPI, Forage Pocket Guide, 2004. Developed by D. M. Ball, C. S. Hoveland, and Gary Lacefield

 

 

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Inoculants for Legumes

An inoculant (nitrogen fixing bacteria), should always be used when seeding legumes. The inoculant should be specific for the legume planted, see Table 2 above. Inoculants are live bacteria so they should be kept cool and moist until planting to get successful legume root nodulation and nitrogen fixation. Some legumes can be purchased with seed coat inoculants. In most cases though, the inoculant will need to be purchased separate from the seed and mixed with the seed just prior to planting. Check the inoculant shipping container for specific use instructions.

Table 2. Kinds of Inoculants needed for commonly grown forage legumes.

 

Alfalfa Group
(Rhizobium meliloti)
Alfalfa
Burclover
Button clover
White & Yellow sweetclover

 

 

Cowpea Group
(Bradyrhizobium japonicim)
Alyceclover
Cowpea
Kudzu
Peanut
Lespedeza

 

 

Pea and Vetch Group
(R. leguminosarum)
Bigflower vetch
Common vetch
Hairy vetch
Winter pea
Clover Group
(Rhizobium trifolii)
Alsike clover
Arrowleaf clover
Ball clover
Berseem clover
Crimson clover
Hop clover
Red clover
Rose clover
White clover

 

 

Lupine Group
(Rhizobium lupini)
Blue lupine
White lupine
Other
Soybean (Rhizobium japonicum)

 


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Seed Bed Preparation

Good seedbed preparation will contribute much to the success of getting a good forage stand. For new pasture plantings, the soil should be level, pulverized, firmed, and free of soil clods and debris to permit precision seed placement. Seeding rates listed in Table 1 are for optimum conditions. These may need to be increased when dealing with less favorable conditions such as overseeding. Many Georgia soils are subject to soil crusting after rain or irrigation. Such can greatly restrict seedling emergence. For this reason, precision seeding at prescribed soil depths is crucial to getting good uniform forage stands. Soil crusting can be reduced by not planting under wet soil conditions, or by irrigating, adding mulch or gypsum after planting. Timing of planting is also crucial to getting and keeping good forage stands. Early planting within the recommended planting period is always advised. Surface soil temperatures on some sunny soil slopes elevate to lethal high temperatures during summer months. Planting warm season species in the early spring can help avoid this problem. During early spring surface soil moisture is usually more favorable for seed germination. Planting cool season species in early fall is also advisable so that plants can become well established and not winter-kill if and when subsequent hard winter freezes occur.

Attaining adequate weed suppression and/or control is essential to successful forage establishment. Many competitive weeds establish much faster than the planted forage crop. As such, they may rob the desired forage plants of needed soil moisture and sunlight for growth and survival. There should be a weed control plan for every forage planting. In many cases, it will be desirable to apply a PE or PO herbicide, depending upon the forage/weed species involved. In some situations, adequate weed suppression can be attained by reducing or eliminating starter nitrogen fertilizer, and/or by frequent close mowing. Information on forage weed management can be obtained from the GA Pest Management Handbook or from local extension offices.

Some forage species can be destroyed by insects during establishment. One should inspect the developing forage stand at least once weekly for insects and be prepared to apply control measures if economic threshold insect levels develop. Agricultural extension agents can give assistance for insect identification and for appropriate control measures.

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Forage Planting Equipment

Forages can be successfully established with a variety of planters and planting techniques. Forages that require shallow seed placement (0-1/2 inch) require planters with capacity for precision seed placement. Cultipacker-seeders and drills with some seed depth control device are usually best for small seeded species. Broadcasting of small seeded species can be successful if there is a good mulch cover or if a cultipacker is used to cover and firm the surface soil afterwards. Broadcasting followed by light disking is risky and can result in seed covered too deeply. If broadcasting is used, the seeding rate should be increased 15-25 percent to help compensate for seed placed too deep for emergence. For small seeded forage species, the cultipacker-seeder is generally superior to the drill for getting good stands. Hydro-seeders are sometimes used for surface seeding on slopes or embankments not accessible by ground equipment. A good mulch should always be used when hydroseeding.

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Vegetative Establishment

Hybrid bermudagrasses and perennial peanuts produce very few or no viable seed; as such they must be established from vegetative sprigs (stolons, rhizomes, or stems). A most important consideration for getting a good uniform forage stand with sprigs is obtaining high quality planting material. Care should be given to be sure that sprigs purchased are certified. Some of the new bermudagrass hybrids have as much as 40 percent more yield and digestibility as the original Coastal bermudagrass. Carefully study variety test data to be sure to get the best grass for your farm and livestock needs. Sprigs are usually sold by the bushel or cubic feet. While highly variable, a bushel usually contains about 1000 sprigs while a cubic foot contains about 800 sprig. There are a number of producers who supply hybrid bermudagrass and perennial peanut sprigs in Georgia. A listing of these is posted on the FAQ portion of this website.

With good establishment techniques, sprigged hybrid bermudagrasses can become established to provide hay or grazing the first season. Sprigged perennial peanut will usually take two to three seasons for full establishment.

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Field Sprigging Techniques

Basic tillage, lime-fertility treatments, and weed control should be done ahead of sprigging. Soil testing is a most important first step to determine lime/nutrient needs. Control of established weeds is essential. Many annual weeds can be controlled by tillage, but perennial weeds such as bahiagrass or common bermudagrass may require several chemical weed control treatments.

Bermudagrass sprigs are usually planted by broadcasting sprigs and disking them into the surface soil layer, or by specialized sprigging machines, or in some cases by hand. With commercial sprigging machines, 30 to 50 bushels of sprigs/A are usually needed. With broadcast efforts, 50 to 75 bushels of sprigs/A may be required for good stands. Hand sprigging is usually feasible only for nursery establishment, and can be done with as little as 10 bushels per acre.

Bermudagrass and perennial peanut sprigs must be planted the same day dug, and be planted in a moist seedbed. Keeping sprigs moist and cool before planting can help survival, especially in warmer months. Perennial peanut should be sprigged with the same techniques as for hybrid bermudagrases. Irrigation during the first month after sprigging can be especially beneficial for perennial peanut survival. Firming the soil after sprigging is critical for good sprig/soil contact and for conserving soil moisture.

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Sprigging Dates:

Perennial peanut: Late winter – early spring
Hybrid bermudagrasses:

 

(a) dormant rhizomes - December to early March
(b) Rhizomes with green tops – spring (after last freeze) to early August
(c) Tops/Green stems - Early June to August

Sprigs should be covered with 1-2 inches of soil to protect from freezing or drying. Delaying winter plantings until late February will help reduce winter weeds and winter kill. Summer plantings can be successful, but best chances of first year establishment and subsequent winter survival are with spring plantings.

Using rhizomes and/or stolens are preferred, but sprigging with tops can be successful with late spring plantings. Here, the stems need to have six or more nodes, and be 18-24 inches long. No information is available for Russell, but Tifton 85, Tifton 78, Coastcross II, Coastal, and Tifton 44 can be established from tops.

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Weed Control for Sprigging

Weed management will be crucial for establishing bermudagrass in an area recently used for pasture. Sites infested with bahiagrass and/or common bermudagrass should be row cropped or repeatedly treated with an appropriate herbicide. A near complete control of these two perennial grasses needs to be achieved. Annual grass and broadleaf weeds will likely be a problem in most fields. Disc or till the site to destroy existing weeds. After sprigging, apply a preemergence herbicide to reduce weed germination. Inspect site carefully in weeks after planting, and, if needed, apply PO herbicides for follow-up weed control. Suppress weed escapes with frequent close mowing. See GA Pest Management Handbook or local Extension office for appropriate herbicides to use.

Failure to succeed in sprigging perennial peanuts or hybrid bermudagrass can be due to:
poor quality sprigs (dried out)

  • planting when there is inadequate soil moisture
  • not firming soil around sprigs or irrigating
  • covering sprigs too shallow or too deeply
  • failure to control weeds
  • planting too few sprigs

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Pasture Renovation

Millions of Southeast pastures were seeded to Pensacola bahiagrass or KY 31 tall fescue during last century. While these species are still popular, researchers have developed new bahiagrass and tall fescue varieties that have superior yield and quality. Tifton 9 bahiagrass has 30 to 40 percent higher forage yield and quality than the Pensacola bahiagrass. In addition, forage researchers discovered in the 1970’s that KY 31 tall fescue contains a fungal endophyte (grows within the stem) and produces alkaloids which are toxic to most ruminant animals. Development of a new tall fescue variety containing a nontoxic (novel) fungal endophyte has led to superior animal performance on tall fescue pasture. Upgrading your forage variety is feasible for many pasture situations.

Farmers have had tall fescue renovation success using several methods that do not require tillage. One is generally referred to as the spray-smoother-spray method. The old KY 31 fescue is sprayed in the early spring with one or two applications of glyphosate and then no-till planted into a summer annual crop like millet. The summer crop is harvested or grazed and the area is sprayed again just prior to replanting fescue with glyphosate if needed. Another technique is to graze or mow the area to keep KY 31 tall fescue from seeding in the spring. Continue grazing or mowing through the summer. Prior to replanting fescue make two successive glyphosate applications. The first should be 4 to 6 weeks prior planting and the second just prior to planting to kill any fescue that survived the first application. Remember that hay brought into the field being renovated can contain seed of toxic fescue. Seed can also be introduced through the dung of animals that have grazed seedy toxic tall fescue. Great care needs to be taken to avoid reintroducing toxic tall fescue.

To renovate a grass with a grass, there must be some aggressive efforts made to destroy the old species. To destroy a warm season grass like Pensacola bahiagrass and replace it with hybrid bermudagrass, the pasture needs to be sprayed in late summer with glyphosate. This should be followed by a follow-up glyphosate spray in late fall and planting of the site with a winter grass such as rye or ryegrass. The following spring, the site should be cut or grazed close, then seeded to the desired hybrid bermudagrass variety. One or two selective grass herbicides will likely be needed to destroy new bahiagrass seedlings.

To renovate an old bahiagrass stand with a new bahiagrass variety is even more challenging because there will usually be dormant viable old bahiagrass seed in the soil for some time which can germinate and become a significant part of the new bahiagrass stand. To have some level of success, the old bahiagrass needs to be destroyed, and the site should be planted to something other than bahiagrass for at least one season so that bahiagrass escapes can be destroyed with tillage or selective herbicide treatments. The best planting time for bahiagrass will be in the spring soon after the last killing frost.

Renovating an old common bermudagrass stand is very difficult. Even with repeated glyphosate sprays, there will be some survival of old rhizomes. Some tillage in combination with glyphosate sprays with help expose rhizomes and increase percent control. Common bermudagrass can be more completely controlled if the land can be rotated for one to three years to crops where intensive grass control measures can be employed, in addition to using the glyphosate sprays.

For cool season pastures – those with KY 31 tall fescue, 90-99 percent renovation can be accomplished in one season.

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Overseeding Grass Pastures with Legumes

Legumes can contribute much to pasture yield, quality, and help meet nitrogen fertilizer needs through N fixation taking place in their roots. Because of heat, light, moisture stresses, herbicide injury, diseases, etc., legumes tend not to persist in Georgia pastures. Perennial peanut is an exception. It can persist for years in the lower Coastal Plain if properly managed. For most other legumes, there is a need for frequent overseeding to maintain them in grass sods.

September-October is the best time to overseed cool season legumes. But the management process must start the previous spring if the effort is to be highly successfully.

Legumes are vulnerable to most pasture herbicides, low soil pH, and low soil fertility. Pasture management needs such as liming and herbicide treatments must be made up to six months before legume overseeding. Prior to overseeding, the grass sod should be grazed or mowed closely to reduce interference with the planting effort.

The planting unit (commonly referred to as a no-till drill) for overseeding should have a cutting coulter for penetrating the grass sod, depth control devices for precise, shallow seed placement, and a small seed attachment for accurately metering small legume seed.

There are some warm season lespedezas that can also be overseeded in grass pastures. These should be overseeded in the spring. See The section “Forage Species for Georgia” for a list of appropriate species for given pasture situations.

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