Forage Establishment – The best ways to get to do it over!

Have you ever heard the saying “You never have time to do it right, but you always find time to do it over”. My father said it to me often. You can imagine the context. In (my) defense, it is human nature to be in a hurry and to skip steps that seem to be less than absolutely necessary. Few processes on the farm provide as much temptation for this ‘skip a step’ thinking as forage establishment.

With a tip of the hat to my dad, here are my top ways to get to ‘do’ forage establishment over. I have made every mistake below, so consider this autobiographical.

Assume the last user left it set right for you. For rental equipment, it is better to assume that the settings are completely wrong. One county went so far as to stencil this warning in big block letters on the side of the drill, “NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR SETTINGS”!

Don’t check the tubes for blockages and sprouted old seed. Drills have multiple tubes and compartments that seem to just right for spider to build webs and for leftover seed to sprout. Make sure all passages are clear before seeding.

Don’t read the manual (for the seeder). From spinner seeders to expensive no-till drills to cultipacker-type seeders, all can be successful when operated correctly. Improperly set equipment is one of the most common causes of doing it over.

Don’t check the seed depth and placement. News flash – most forage crops have small seeds. Small seeds need shallow placement. Most forages should be no deeper than 1/4 to 1/2 inch. Forage seeds benefit from being pressed into the soil as with a cultipacker or  packer wheel, or at least some type of drag. 

Ignore weeds. The most successful seedings are where weed problems are addressed before and after seeding. Some weeds, like johnsongrass are such problem weeds that may take a multi-year approach to clean up a field, especially if it is going back into a grass. Preventing seed production of toxic tall fescue is critical for establishment of endophyte-free or novel tall fescues. New seedings are especially vulnerable to weed competition after seeding when seedlings are newly emerged and not fully established.

Not addressing fertility needs. Soil fertility is one variable you completely control, so get a soil test and apply the critical amendments. Your extension agent can help you interpret a soil test report and develop a fertilizer strategy.

Ignoring the calendar. Hitting the right calendar window for seeding is complicated. There are generally accepted windows for seeding grasses and legumes but year to year variation in weather, access to equipment and frankly just available time can be factors making you consider planting outside the optimum dates. Seeding outside of the recommended dates means you are choosing the greater risk of seeding failure with the 100% chance of failure if you don’t seed at all. Late summer/early fall is the best time to seed cool season grasses, but ideally legumes should be added later (like a frost seeding in February). Grasses like tall fescue and orchardgrass require 7 to 10 days of moist conditions to emerge. Legumes germinate and emerge faster than grasses and are more competitive for light. Legumes have taproots which give them an advantage over grasses when moisture is limiting. Legumes are more tolerant of drier and warmer conditions after emergence than the fibrous-rooted cool season grasses. So spring seedings favor legumes, but they can be seeded in the fall if seeding by early Sept. The cooler, and typically wetter conditions of fall are the best for cool season grass establishment. Legumes drilled into a firm, moist seedbed can emerge in two to three days.

Using cheap seed. Uncertified or common seed is never worth the risk when seeding a perennial forage crop. Do your homework on what is available from your preferred vendor and check those products against the extensive test data available from UK Forages web site ( or just google UKY Forage Varieties). Blends or mixes can be good buys, but only if the tag confirms you are getting proven varieties.

Careful attention to these forage establishment principles will greatly lower your risk of getting to ‘do it over.’ Happy foraging. ~ Jimmy Henning for Farmers Pride