New Forage Seedings

It is time to get in those new forage seedings. Luckily, there have been nearly ideal conditions this spring and planting for many is underway. This post will provide some tips to consider before heading to the field with the seeder.

Preparation – To ensure the best chances of a vigorous and healthy stand, check your soil fertility and pH well before planting. When soil pH is above 6.0, forages are more productive, but it should be closer to 7.0 for alfalfa or birdsfoot trefoil. If you’d like to establish an alfalfa crop in a soil with a lower pH, you can lime the field now and plant an annual forage, and establish alfalfa later in the growing season. Other nutrient requirements should be determined from your soil test. Don’t forget to consider the previous crop and any potential herbicide carryover, because forages are more sensitive to carryover than a crop like corn.

Select your varieties considering your soil characteristics and forage goals. Commonly grown grasses include orchardgrass, reed canarygrass, timothy, smooth bromegrass, tall fescue, meadow fescue, Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, and festulolium. Some species such as perennial ryegrass and festulolium can be very short lived in Vermont growing conditions and others like timothy and reed canarygrass can be very slow to establish. Combining grass with legumes will improve forage quality, yields, and reduce nitrogen fertilizer inputs. Legumes such as alfalfa, red clover, white clover, birdsfoot trefoil, and alsike clover grow well in Vermont. Species such as alfalfa prefer loamy soils and can perform well during dry periods, where white clover can withstand wet soils but does not handle droughty conditions well. In the spring, it is common to add a “nurse crop” to the seed mix. The goal of the nurse crop is to help outcompete weeds and provide some early forage from the new seed. Nurse crops should be used only with pure legume stands or high legume to grass mixtures. Often a nurse crop will smother out the slow growing grass species if present. For more information on forage species, see UVM Extension’s fact sheet Description and Seeding Rates for Forage Plants Growing in Vermont at:

Planting – Seed a high-quality seed with a properly calibrated drill or seeder as soon as weather permits, which is generally late April to early May in this region. The goal is get the forage stand well established before we hit the hotter and drier summer months. If planted too close to summer, there might be enough forage growth before the plants hit dormancy during the hot and dry period. In general, new seedings in Vermont should not be planted past May 15th. If time is getting late, it is best to wait until late summer to put the new seeding into the ground or wait until next year. Planting early can also help new seedings outcompete weed pressure.

Make sure to not plant the seed to deep! Most forages should be planted to a shallow depth 1/4 to 1/2 inch depth. Planting too deep will result in decreased or no emergence. Seeds of grasses and other forages simply don’t have enough stored energy to emerge if they are not close to the soil surface. It should also be noted that forage emergence can be severely impacted by crusted soils. Make sure not to overwork the soil! Seeding with a drill or cultipack seeder is recommended, though forages can be seeded by broadcast with a fertilizer spreader if necessary – but there is risk of an uneven spread, and you may need to increase the seeding rate.

Summer Considerations – If your seeding has poor establishment or has reduced yields due to summer heat and dry weather, you can still increase yields by planting in more heat-tolerant summer annuals in July and August, and/or establishing fall forages. When establishing a new forage field for hay, it’s important to delay the first cutting to not weaken the stand. Harvest the first cut at the flowering of legumes, or about 70 days after seeding for grasses. Stands should be harvested earlier if they are being overrun by weeds. This will clip off the weed tops and prevent the impending seedhead development, and a future weedy disaster.

For more information on forage species selection please review our research reports:

Forage Brassica

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