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A Guide To Establishing Lush Pastures

Updated: Apr 16

For both experienced farmers and novices looking to cultivate lush pastures, this comprehensive guide offers instructions to unlock the secrets to establishing thriving pasturelands.

a lush meadow in golden dusk

Where Do I Start When Planting A Pasture?

Before starting any seeding project, it is important to have a clear idea of what you would like to accomplish. This can include producing livestock forage, creating wildlife habitat, controlling erosion, or suppressing weeds. Your goals combined with the location, climate, soils, and intended management (ex: grazing cattle) will help decide what to plant. There are many species available, some plants can perform multiple roles while others are more specialized. The mixes in this booklet have descriptions that can help you identify the proper mix with plants that meet your requirements. Take time to evaluate and make an informed decision.

When Is The Best Time to Plant?

a pasture with golden autumn trees in the background

The timing of a seeding is critical to success and can vary even with the same seed, depending on location, soils, and irrigation. Drylands/rangelands are usually seeded in the late fall. The seeding takes place before winter snowfall, seeds over winter and are then ready to germinate with rising spring temperatures and capitalize on moisture from winter snow melt. Irrigated plantings can be made almost any time during the growing season if sufficient irrigation is available. Despite this, Spring is usually considered the optimum season for irrigated seedings. Lower temperatures, high humidity, and good soil moisture provide ideal conditions for germination. When planting mid-summer care should be taken to keep soil moist and avoid soil crusting. Fall plantings can be successful if plants can have at least 6 weeks of active growth before a killing frost. Young seedlings need good snow cover for survival, lack of snow cover can lead to seedling mortality. Knowing your site's snow cover can help determine the time of planting.


How Do I Prepare The Planting Site?

a tractor preparing a field for planting

Preparing a proper seedbed for planting is important in achieving a successful seeding project. An ideal seedbed is free of competitive weeds, including both plants and seeds. The soil needs to be firm but not over-packed so the seed can be planted to the proper depth and the soil can facilitate upward movement of moisture. In cases where soil compaction is detrimental to plant growth, tillage may be necessary to break up and loosen soil. If tillage is used to prepare the site a cultipacker or roller can be used to firm the soil before drilling or after broadcasting seed. Adequate weed control should be in place to mitigate impacts from weedy competition.


How Deep Should I Plant The Seeds?

It is critical that seeds be placed at a proper depth in the soil, too deep and seedling may not emerge, too shallow and they may not have adequate soil contact and moisture. A seed needs to be planted in firm contact with the soil. This helps the seed maintain moisture for germination and growth as well as a place to anchor new roots. Usually, proper seeding depth is determined by the size of the seed. Generally larger seeds can be planted deeper and smaller seeds shallower. A general rule is most species should be covered with soil to a depth about 3 times the thickness of the seed. Be aware of seeding depth and follow mix recommendations, as planting too deep is a major reason for seeding failures!


What Type Of Equipment Should I Use?

a green John Deer tractor pulling a cultivator

Selection of the proper equipment is crucial to seeding success. Most agricultural seed drills will function for pasture plantings so long as they can maintain proper seeding depth and have adequate seed box agitation to help different sized seeds flow and stay mixed. In rough and unprepared sites, a rangeland drill will be preferred to allow drilling over uneven terrain features and maintain proper seed placement. Broadcasting can be effective in areas where using a drill isn't possible or feasible, equipment varies in size from handheld to tractor and aircraft units. When broadcast seeding the seeding rate should be increased to account for lower germination and higher seedling mortality. After broadcast seeding it is helpful to lightly drag/rake the seeded area with a chain harrow or similar, to ensure good seed to soil contact. Care should be taken to avoid burying the seeds too deeply.


Another option is to use a roller or cultipacker to press broadcasted seed into the soil surface. If there are problems with soil compaction, tillage can be used to loosen the soil. Disks and plows are commonly used, many other options are available. When soil is tilled a roller or cultipacker can be used to firm up the seed bed prior to drilling. In the case of inter-seeding into an existing pasture a no-till drill may be the preferred piece of equipment, it allows for little disruption to the current stand while planting new seed. This also helps keep weeds and erosion at a minimum.


How Often Should I Water?


Proper Irrigation is key to establishing a healthy pasture. When and how irrigation is applied can determine its effectiveness. Plants have differing water requirements depending on their stage of growth, during germinating and sprouting new seedlings are especially susceptible to drought, and need regular irrigation. The frequency of irrigation depends on soil type, weather, and plant needs. New seedlings have a shallow root zone so irrigation can be accomplished with less water at short intervals, this also helps soften soil crusts (if present) to allow seedling emergence. As plants grow and the root zone deepens, irrigations can be made with more water at less frequent intervals. Specific irrigation requirements can vary widely, it is important to understand the soil, plants, and weather for your seeding area and apply irrigation accordingly.


What Type Of Fertilization Works Best?

Appropriate levels of all nutrients must be available for plants to be productive. It is recommended that a soil test be conducted to determine the availability of nutrients on site prior to seeding. A soil test can determine nutrient content, soil texture, salt (salinity) levels, and soil pH. These are important considerations in selecting what to plant on a site. It is best to apply any lacking nutrients before seeding. After establishment nitrogen is essential for grass species to maintain yields and forage quality. Apply nitrogen as early as possible in the spring. If more than 100 lbs. per acre of nitrogen is recommended, consider splitting up the application in multiple smaller applications through the growing season. (On dryland sites fertilization is not recommended)


Is Weed Control Necessary When Planting A Pasture Mix?

a green pasture with fuzzy seeding dandelions

Weeds compete with new seedlings for light, nutrients and water, most weeds can easily outcompete and take over a new planting if left unchecked. Control should start before seeding. This can give a new planting a head start on weeds. There are multiple methods of weed control, chemical, mechanical, and cultural. Chemical control is most common in the form of spraying and can be used efficiently and efficiently on most weeds. Mechanical control can be accomplished by means of tillage, chopping, or pulling. Cultural control makes use of good grazing practices, seeding competitive desired species and crop rotation schedules. The control method(s) used will vary with the targeted weeds and the site. Weed control is an ongoing process and usually takes continual vigilance after a seeding is established to continually suppress weeds. If using chemical control, always apply the herbicide according to package the label.


Following these guidelines can get you started in the right direction for your seeding project. They are not intended to cover the vast amount of variability that can be found in soils, weather, and seeds associated with such projects.
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