Joe Christner, Water Quality Specialist
Most of us are ready for spring and are looking forward to warmer weather and the brown fields changing to green. The third wettest fall and a somewhat open winter have been tough on pastures and hayfields. Winter horse pastures and areas around hay feeders and water tanks have taken a beating as well. Even your yard may have bare spots.
In many parts of the United States March can be an opportunity to improve these stands by frost seeding. Frost seeding is a method where you apply seed to the ground and the freezing and thawing of the soil in March will provide seed to soil contact allowing germination of the seed. Initiate frost seeding anytime after soils begin to experience freeze-thaw cycles. Coupled with spring rains, the alternate freeze cycles are what help to incorporate the seed. Seeding on top of snow is sometimes suggested as desirable practice but only if the snow is not too deep causing the seed to move off the field during a rapid melt. Most of the time a broad cast seeder is used to apply the seed, however drilling or no till drilling is an option if the soils conditions are dry enough and the surface is thawed. Though not always a sure bet, frost seeding pastures can be an effective practice for maintaining legumes and introducing new grass species. There is a somewhat higher risk with frost seeding than conventional seeding, but the cost and time is a lot less and it beats ripping up existing sod. Paying attention to details can reduce risk and increase the chance of success.
Good seed to soil contact is the key to a successful frost seeding. The secret is to have exposed soil. Pasture and hay fields that have thin stands and exposed soil are good candidates for frost seeding. A late fall grazing will drastically improve odds for new seedling establishment by exposing soil, and will also slow the spring growth of established grasses, giving new seedlings a chance to develop.
Sod type grass pastures such as bluegrass are the most difficult to obtain a successful frost seeding especially if there is heavy thatch layer. Frost seeding is also less successful on sandy soils compared to loam or clay soils.
Boosting the legume component of pastures is often the primary reason for frost seeding. The seed that works the best is clover. A heavy round seed has a better chance of making soil contact than a light flatter seed. Medium red clover is the cheapest and works well. Other clovers such as white(ladino)clover will also work. Do not try to establish alfalfa where alfalfa already exists because of autotoxicity issues. Also, alfalfa needs a warmer temperature to germinate compared to clovers.
Ryegrass is the easiest grass species for frost seeding. Other cool season grasses will be much more variable, although orchardgrass and timothy seem to be the next best alternatives. Other than ryegrass the best approach for frost seeding grasses is to use a grain drill.
Seeding rate for successful frost seeding vary greatly with soil types, weather conditions, and desired results. For clovers, begin with 2-4 pounds per acre and adjust accordingly based on results. Also make sure the seeder is calibrated.
Once seeded, give the new seedlings a fighting chance. Flash graze the existing vegetation once it reaches a height that competes with the young seedlings for sunlight. Not doing so is the reason many new frost seedings fail.
Success will vary from year to year based on conditions. Maximizing seed to soil contact and minimizing competition for the young seedlings are the keys for a successful frost seeding.
Frost seeding is a cost-saving and effective means of improving pastures and other areas that need more vegetation after a wet fall and winter. In a future article the benefits of heavy use pads and sacrifice areas will be discussed as a practice to reduce the damage to winter pastures and lots.
For more info Contact Holmes SWCD 330-674-2811
Joe Christner, Water Quality Specialist
Joe Christner came to Holmes SWCD in 2001 with experience and knowledge drawn from 20-plus years of dairy farming. He grew up on a small farm near New Bedford, Ohio. His background interest and involvement in agriculture from the time he was a young man give him an empathy and understanding of the needs and concerns of today’s farmers. Joe can assist you with conservation plans for your farming operation, including nutrient management planning and record keeping. Water quality, soil health, and conserving the resources needed for the next generation and beyond is very important to Joe.
Contact Joe at 330-674-2811 or firstname.lastname@example.org