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Publication #SS-AGR-161

Forage Planting and Establishment Methods on Prepared Seedbed1

M. O. Wallau, J. Vendramini, and Y.C. Newman2

The establishment phase is crucial for the success of any pasture, annual or perennial. The goal is to achieve a uniform stand in the shortest possible period of time, avoiding competition from weeds and having the pasture ready for use the earliest possible. Several aspects must be considered to successfully establish a pasture. These requirements are briefly discussed in the following sections, along with various planting methods. Most of this discussion deals with establishment on a clean-tilled seedbed. Information about overseeding (sod seeding) can be found in EDIS publication SS-AGR-175.

Choosing the Right Forage Species and Cultivar

There are many options for forage species that can be used in Florida: grasses, legumes, and forbs; annuals and perennials. Those can be planted as monocultures or in combination and can be used to fulfill different needs of the production system. There are some important aspects to be considered before planting your pasture. First, what is the purpose for that forage? Will it be the base of your system or just filling a specific gap? Winter grazing, hay production, wildlife feeding, or silage. It is important to think in a system’s perspective when considering your species, and see how the different combinations can fit your needs. When talking about grazing systems, generally the goal is to have forage supply year-round. Then, you need to look into what is more adapted to your soil and climatic conditions. Several areas in the state of Florida are subjected to temporary floods, so choosing species adapted to those conditions is important. Are there any specific cultivars developed for my region? Some areas have a higher pathogen pressure, like nematodes or rust, so choosing resistant cultivars also enhances the chances of success. To take advantage of genetically improved varieties for your region, choose cultivars that were bred for your conditions. Then, what level of input you are willing to use, in terms of fertilizer, herbicide, and other management practices? Some forages have higher requirements (e.g., bermudagrass hybrids) for sustaining higher productivity than others (e.g., bahiagrass).

Land Preparation

Establishing a pasture on native or undeveloped land requires, many times, removal of trees, stumps, and brush. Several types of machines and methods are available to clear and prepare those areas, including everything from very large and expensive tree and stump removal equipment (like bulldozers) to the tractors and disk harrows used for final seedbed preparation. If the land is to be used only for grazing, some stumps and roots can be left in place; however, this makes cultural practices such as fertilizing and spraying difficult. For pastures dedicated to harvesting hay or silage, or that could potentially be turned into cropland afterwards, then all stumps and roots must be removed. Special machines have been developed for these operations.

Liming

Having the soil tested early to determine the need for lime is important. Since the lime reaction in the soil may be slow, it can take several months to raise soil pH to the target levels. When needed, lime should be applied prior to the first tillage and preferably 6 months before planting. It should be incorporated into the soil whenever possible for a faster reaction. For no-till systems, when broadcasting or direct drilling cool-season forages into existing sod, for example, lime can be applied on the surface, but it will take longer for the soil to react with the liming material. In this case, some forage species can be used to increase movement of lime and nutrients to lower layers of the soil, such as oat, radish, and turnips. Either calcitic or dolomitic limestone can be used, but if soil test shows magnesium to be medium or low, then dolomitic limestone is the best choice.

Seedbed Preparation

A producer can establish pasture on new ground, following a row crop, or by complete destruction and replanting of an old pasture to a new species. Establishment of a new forage crop requires detailed planning. Plan well in advance of the expected planting date to have a well-prepared seedbed: leveled, firm, and free of residues and weeds. Till early to incorporate lime, to allow time for rains to settle the loose soil, and weeds to germinate. By doing that, you are reducing soil seed bank or reserves of vegetatively propagated weeds. Repeated disking or herbicide application can be used for killing the weeds. In a situation where land has been freshly plowed just before planting and has not had time to settle, disking and cultipacking or rolling may be needed to firm the seedbed before planting small-seeded forage crops such as clovers and bahiagrass. Planting into a loose seedbed increases the risk of placing the seed too deep and reduces germination. It is important to have good seed-to-soil contact.

Primary tillage can be accomplished using a heavy cutting disk or moldboard plow. Use a moldboard plow to renovate old pasture; use a cutting disk on land where stumps might be present. Secondary tillage uses a finishing disk and drag. A leveling disk or drag pulled behind the disk will help to fill holes and level and smooth the surface. Obtaining the desired seedbed may require repeated disking. The final disking should be done just ahead of planting to destroy any germinating weeds.

Fertilization for Establishment

Fertilization practices vary according to soil analysis and crop being planted. For annual grass, fertilizer should be applied at planting or right after germination. For perennial grasses, and especially on sandy soils, it is recommended that producers wait until the new shoots emerge and have developed some roots before applying the fertilizer. Much of the planting is done in the summer rainy season and on sandy soils where leaching of nutrients out of the root zone can occur. Therefore, it is desirable to have some roots in place and ready to take up nutrients when the fertilizer is applied. The type, amount, and timing of fertilizer application during establishment can be obtained from the EDIS publication SL-129 UF/IFAS Standardized Fertilization Recommendations for Agronomic Crops (http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ss163).

Planting Dates

Cool-season forages are planted at the beginning of the cool season (fall). Warm-season forages are planted at the start of the warm season (spring and summer). See Table 1 and Table 2 for specific planting dates.

Soil moisture is usually the most critical factor determining when to start planting and whether establishment will be successful. Always plant in a moist seedbed and when sufficient soil moisture can be expected to continue for several weeks (10 to 12). Planting a perennial grass in April in south Florida may be risky because of the expected April/May drought. Warm-season forages are generally planted at the start of the warm season (spring and summer), but forage planted by rhizomes in north Florida, such as bermudagrass and rhizoma perennial peanut, may be planted in late winter (February–March). Cool-season forages are generally planted from mid-October to mid-December, depending on the location in the state. Early planting can result in higher weed pressure or competition from summer grass (sod-seeding) and increased disease pressure because of high temperature and humidity. Nevertheless, this period is also generally dry in many parts of the state, and if planting without irrigation, it is important to wait for cool temperatures to reduce the growth of warm-season grasses and rain for guaranteeing germination.

Seed and Propagation Material Purchase

Good quality seed or planting material should always be used. Always choose certified seeds and verify seed tags for germination and contamination with other seeds. It is desirable to use seed with minimum 80% germination. The seeds should also have enough food reserves for the seedling to reach the soil surface and grow rapidly. When vegetative planting material is used, it should have been well fertilized and mature when harvested for planting. It should be pure as to variety and free of weedy plants. The period of higher accumulation of reserves for rhizome-propagated materials is winter, while for those propagated with tops is mid-summer. Late-summer material has high accumulation of reserves, but planting at that period can be risky, since there will be little time for the plants to establish well before the winter.

Planting Methods for Seed-Propagated Forages

Several methods and types of machines have been developed over the years for seeding forage crops—from manually broadcasting the seeds by hand to very sophisticated vacuum precision planters. Choice will be based on equipment available and crop to be seeded. Some crops, like the small grains, require good soil-to-seed contact and need to be drilled or incorporated, while other crops, such as clover and ryegrass, can be broadcasted and rolled. Broadcast spreaders are generally the choice among many ranchers, since they are inexpensive to purchase and operate. If the seedbed is very loose, it may need to be firmed by rolling (cultipacking) before broadcasting the seeds. After broadcasting the seeds, the soil is harrowed very lightly to cover the seeds with approximately 1/4 to 1/2 inch of soil. Then a cultipacker or roller is used to pack and firm the soil around the seed. Where seeds are broadcast on a loose seedbed, only cultipacking may be needed to obtain sufficient seed to soil contact. For small seeds, such as Callide rhodesgrass or white clover, any disking (harrowing) can cover the seeds too deeply, so only rolling should be sufficient. See Table 1 and Table 2 for recommended seeding depths.

Continuous flow and precision seeders are generally more expensive to purchase and operate, but allow for more precise planting rates and seeding depths. With correct seed depth and good compaction from the rolling wheels, lower seeding rates can be used compared to broadcasting. Precision vacuum seeders will be the best choice when establishing large-seeded species, such as corn and sorghum, and are more frequently found in a row crop setup. The conventional grain drill with a small seed-box attachment can be used for planting small-seeded grasses and legumes and may be the most common type of precision planter used. Excellent results have been obtained planting bahiagrass with a conventional grain drill when the soil was rolled before planting. Rolling or firming the soil before planting allows the drill to place the bahiagrass seed uniformly at the correct depth. A cultipacker-style seeder, used on clean-tilled seedbeds, is popular with some producers. This planter consists of two corrugated rollers pulled in tandem, with a seed box mounted between the rollers. The first roller makes shallow furrows. The seed drops in the furrows and is covered by the second roller. This is the ideal planter for small-seeded forage crops in a clean-tilled seedbed. This planter should only be used on land that is completely free of tree roots, rocks, or other obstructions.

Planting Methods for Vegetatively Propagated Forages

Some forage species, like bermudagrass, limpograss, and rhizoma peanut, have to be established using vegetative material. There are two types of planting material: rhizomes and tops (stolons or stems). Hybrid bermudagrasses that develop rhizomes and rhizome peanut are planted from dug sprigs. Near the end of the winter (dormant period) when tops are not available, the plant crowns and rhizomes are dug with a sprig digger (Figure 1) or a spring-tooth harrow and raked. The sprigs are then loaded and transported to the site where they will be planted, preferentially within the period of a day. If more than a day passes between digging and planting, the planting material can overheat, which can reduce establishment potential.

Figure 1. 

Spring digger for bermudagrass.


Credit:

João Vendramini, UF/IFAS


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

The whole operation can be custom hired. Operators usually supply the sprigs and have all of the equipment needed plus plenty of valuable experience. The planting material is usually sold and planted on a volume basis. For bermudagrass, a minimum of 20 bu/acre (1.25 cubic feet per bushel) and preferably 30 to 40 bu/acre is recommended. The bermudagrass sprigs can be drilled (Figure 2), broadcast on the prepared seedbed by hand or with a spinner-type spreader, then disked in and rolled. The preferred method is to use a specially constructed bermudagrass sprig planter. Hybrid bermudagrass can also be planted from tops or dug sprigs during the summer. Rhizoma peanut is planted to 80 bushels of loosely packed rhizomes per acre. More information on bermudagrass and rhizoma peanut establishment can be found in publications SS-AGR-60 (http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/aa200) and SS-AGR-349 (http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ag358), respectively.

Figure 2. 

Bermuda king for sprig planting.


Credit:

João Vendramini, UF/IFAS


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Late-winter and spring planting of dug sprigs is mainly done in north Florida, where the chances of a severe spring drought are less than in south Florida, where most of the planting of vegetative material is done during the summer rainy season.

Other grasses such as Limpograss (Hemarthria), stargrass, and digitgrass (Pangola) are established using tops (stems or stolons). The same principles apply: tops should be pure as to variety, free of weedy grasses, well fertilized, and relatively mature (8 plus weeks old). Depending on the type of planting equipment available, the planting material can be harvested and handled loose; formed into small, 50-pound rectangular bales by a conventional hay baler; or formed into large, round bales (1,000 to 1,500 lb). The baled material must be planted as quickly as possible (same day) so that it does not overheat. These grasses should be planted to a rate of 1,000 to 1,500 pounds of planting material (tops) per acre. Use the lower rate on new ground and the higher rate on land that has been in cultivation for a number of years and may have a buildup of weeds. Even higher rates can be used if the planting material is nearby, abundant, and inexpensive.

The planting material can be broadcast on the soil surface by hand or with machines. A "grass planter" (or pizza cutter, Figure 3) can be put together in local shops and consists of a spinner or fan mechanism to throw and scatter the planting material. It is pulled behind a flatbed truck or trailer loaded with the planting material. Those machines still require four to five workers to be run efficiently. A large version of this equipment has been developed by Deseret Ranch for round bales. It chops and blows the planting material in a 50 to 60 foot swath.

Figure 3. 

Plant material (tops) distribution with "pizza cutter". Material is carried on a trailer behind a tractor and fed to the distributer.


Credit:

João Vendramini, UF/IFAS


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Once the planting material is on the ground, it should be covered or rolled immediately (within 15 minutes). A disk harrow, with the blades set fairly straight, can be used for this purpose, or a "fairway roller" or "crimper" that has 8- to 10-inch-deep flanges with blunt edges can be used to push the planting material into the soil (Figure 4). This tool works well on moist sand. The crimper may not work well on chopped planting material. The soil should then be firmed around the planting material by pulling a cultipacker or heavy land roller over the land at least twice to create an extra firm seedbed. The land rollers are usually filled with water to give them added weight.

Figure 4. 

Disk and roller to cover plant material after planting.


Credit:

João Vendramini, UF/IFAS


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Since planting material can be very expensive and not readily available, producers can establish their own nursery, and use it to expand their plantings. This practice reduces the cost for planting material, and time spent between harvesting and planting, increasing the chances of better establishment. However, it is essential to have a weed-free area before establishing a nursery, and maintain it well fertilized and clean for producing high quality material.

Establishment Weed Control

The choice of herbicide is very dependent on how the crop is planted as well as the species. For example, diuron is used when planting bermudagrass rhizomes (sprigs), but not for planting tops. Certain postemergence herbicides, such as 2,4-D or dicamba (e.g., Banvel®), but usually a combination of the two (2,4-D + dicamba, i.e., Weedmaster®), can be used on bermudagrass and stargrass. Dicamba (Banvel®, others) can be used on limpograss, but neither limpograss nor bahiagrass tolerate 2,4-D and Weedmaster® during establishment. Timing of application is crucial both for not injuring pasture crop and for more efficient weed control. Sedges can be controlled with Weedmaster® 7 to 10 days after planting, when still seedlings. If herbicides are not available, mechanical control by mowing at appropriate times provides some control of annual weeds or at least prevents them from shading out the newly planted grass. For establishing clovers, some postemergence herbicides require plants to have a minimum of two trifoliate leaves. For more specific information, check the publications on Weed Management in Pastures and Rangeland SS-AGR-08 (http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/wg006) and Weed Management in Clover SS-AGR-235 (http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/wg214), and always follow instructions on the label.

Summary

Two sources of weed contamination must be recognized: impurity in seed or planting material, and high weed pressure on site along with poor seedbed preparation. Selection of pure, good quality seed or planting material and good seedbed preparation provide the first line of prevention against weed invasion, which is commonly associated with establishment failures.

One should be successful in establishing a new planting if all of the requirements for establishment are met in a timely manner.

  • Plan ahead; have the land prepared well ahead of the expected planting date.

  • Plant during the time of year when rainfall is plentiful and temperatures are appropriate for the forage crop being planted.

  • Use excellent quality seed or planting material.

  • Prepare a smooth, level, weed-free, and firm seedbed.

  • Always plant into a seedbed with good soil moisture.

  • Place seed or planting material at the appropriate depth.

  • Firm soil around the seed or planting material to ensure soil-to-seed contact.

  • Use appropriate establishment fertilizer and weed control methods.

For additional information on this and other forage topics, please visit the Forages of Florida website at http://agronomy.ifas.ufl.edu/ForagesofFlorida/index.php.

Tables

Table 1. 

Planting dates, seeding rates, and planting depths for common forage crops planted from seed in Florida.

Season

Forage crops planted from seeda

Planting dates

Seeding rates (lbs/A broadcast)

Planting depths (inches)

Fallb

Alfalfa

Oct 1–Dec 15

15–20

1/4–1/2

Clover

     
 

Arrowleaf

Oct 1–Dec 15

8–12

1/4–1/2

 

Berseem

Oct 1–Dec 15

15–20

1/4–1/2

 

Crimson

Oct 1–Dec 15

20–25

1/4–1/2

 

Red

Oct 1–Dec 15

10–15

1/4–1/2

 

Rose

Oct 1–Dec 15

15–20

1/4–1/2

 

Subterranean

Oct 1–Dec 15

12–22

1/4–1/2

 

Sweetclover

Oct 1–Dec 15

12–15

1/4–1/2

 

White

Oct 1–Dec 15

3–4

0–1/4

Oat-forage

Sep 1–Dec 15

100–120 (3–4 bu)

1–2

Pea

     
 

Austrian winter

Oct 1–Dec 15

40–60

1/2–1

 

Rough/singletary/caley

Oct 1–Dec 15

30–40

1/2–1

Rye-forage

Oct 1–Dec 15

90–120 (1.5–2.0 bu)

1–2

Ryegrass, Italian (annual)

Oct 1–Dec 15

20–30

0–1/2

Triticale-forage

Oct 1–Dec 15

84–112 (1.5–2.0 bu)

1–2

Turnips

Oct 1–Dec 15

5–6

1/4–1/2

Vetch, hairy

Oct 1–Dec 15

30–35

1–2

Wheat-forage

Oct 1–Dec 15

100–120 (1.5–2.0 bu)

1–2

Spring & Summer

Alyceclover

Apr 15–June 30

15

1/4–1/2

Aeschynomene

Mar 30–June 30

6–8 (dehulled)

1/4–1/2

Bahiagrassc

Feb 15–Aug 15

25–30

1/4–1/2

Bermudagrass

Feb 15–Aug 15

10–15

1/4–1/2

Corn

     
 

Temperate

Feb 15–Apr 15

See noted

 
 

Tropical

Apr 15–June 15

100–120 (60–90)e

 

Cowpea

Apr 1–July 31

35–60

1–3

Desmodium, carpon

Feb 15–June 30

6–10

1/4–1/2

Indigo, hairy

Apr 1–June 30

6–10

1/4–1/2

Phasey bean

Mar 30–June 30

10–15

1/4–1/2

Vigna parkerii

Feb 15–June 30

2–5

1/4–1/2

Millet

     
 

Brown top

Feb 15–Aug 15

15–20

1/2–1

 

Japanese

Feb 15–Aug 15

24–30

1/2–1

 

Pearl

Mar 15–June 30

12–15

1/2–1

Sorghum

     
 

Sorghum, forage

Apr 1–June 30

30–40 (25)e

1–2

 

Sorghum x sudan

Mar 15–June 30

10–12

1–2

Brachiaria, Mulato

Mar 15–Aug 15

5–10

1/4–1/2

a Always check seed quality (% germination, dormancy, weed seed, other crop seed, and trash). Seed germination should be 80% or higher for best results.

b Planting-Date Range: In general, cool-season forage crops in north Florida can be planted in the early part of the planting-date range and, in south Florida, during the later part of the range. Also, planting in a clean-tilled seedbed can generally be done earlier than sod seeding (overseeding).

c Bahiagrass may be planted over a wide range of dates, but February or June are preferred dates under most conditions. Seeding Rates: 25 to 30 lb per acre. Higher seeding rates (up to 40 lb per acre) can be used for faster grass coverage. The seed of certain new varieties of bahiagrass may be very high priced and thus require a low seeding rate. If less than 10 lb of seed is planted, be sure that % germination is greater than 80% and that % dormancy of the seed is low. Plant only in a well-prepared, smooth seedbed using a precision planter. Mow regularly to control weeds.

d Consult seed company recommendations for hybrid or variety used.

e Seeding Rate: lb per acre when planted in rows 30" to 36" wide, instead of broadcast.

Table 2. 

Planting dates and rates for common forage crops in Florida planted from vegetative material.

Forage Crops Planted from Vegetative Material

Planting Dates and Planting Rates

Bermudagrasses (dug sprigs)

- Plant between January 15 and March 15 or between June 1 and August 15.a

- Use underground stems (rhizomes and sod crowns).

- To obtain planting material use a commercial sprig digger; or use a plow or disk and pitchforks.

- Plant 30–40 bushels per acre.

- To plant, use a commercial sprig planter; or broadcast sprigs onto the soil surface, cover with a disk, and firm soil with a cultipacker or heavy land roller.

- Planting depth: 2–3 inches.

Bermudagrasses (tops)

Digitgrasses

Limpograss (Hemarthria)

Stargrass

- Plant between June 1 and August 15.a

- All these grasses can be planted from upright stems (green tops). Use mature grass (8+ weeks).

- To cut tops, use a mower similar to the mower used for harvesting hay. Tops may be handled loose or made into bales using conventional hay balers.

- Plant 1,000–1,500 lb green tops per acre.

- Special machines for broadcasting tops are available. Uniformly scatter planting material over soil surface; cover immediately, using a finishing disk set at a slight angle. Firm the soil with a cultipacker or heavy land roller. Fertilize appropriately and control weeds.

- Planting depth: 2–3 inches.

Perennial Peanut

- Plant between December and March 15 or between June 15 and August 15.

- Use a commercial sprig digger to harvest rhizomes (underground stems).

- Plant 80+ bushels per acre.

- Plant rhizomes in a well-prepared seedbed, using a row-type commercial sprig planter. Pack soil after planting. Irrigate to insure successful establishment.

- Planting depth: 1.0–1.5 inches

a For south Florida, planting can be made later in the year, provided soil moisture conditions are favorable; rainy season is June 15 to August 15.

Footnotes

1.

This document is SS-AGR-161, one of a series of the Agronomy Department, UF/IFAS Extension. Original publication date March 2001. Revised March 2011 and January 2018. Visit the EDIS website at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu. This publication is also a part of the Florida Forage Handbook, an electronic publication of the Agronomy Department. For more information you may contact M. O. Wallau (mwallau@ufl.edu).

2.

M. O. Wallau, assistant professor, Agronomy Department; J. Vendramini, associate professor, Agronomy Department, UF/IFAS Range Cattle Research and Education Center; and Y. C. Newman, assistant professor, Extension specialist, University of Wisconsin River Falls; UF/IFAS Extension, Gainesville, FL 32611.

The use of trade names in this publication is solely for the purpose of providing specific information. UF/IFAS does not guarantee or warranty the products named, and references to them in this publication do not signify our approval to the exclusion of other products of suitable composition.


The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.