Dormant seeding forage crops — sometimes it pays to delay

Forages: News Roundup from the Oct. 22 issue of Canadian Cattlemen

The Blood Tribe grows and processes timothy and alfalfa for export.

For many producers 2018 was another dry year with poor conditions for seeding perennial forage crops. Since good moisture is the key to good forage establishment, fall may provide a better opportunity.

Some producers delay seeding forages till fall because there is more time available after harvest and if left till spring, inevitably forage is the last crop to go into the ground.

If you are considering seeding forages this fall you should know that most species need enough time to develop to the two- to three-leaf stage for winter survival. With many areas of Saskatchewan reporting frost by mid-September, forage seeding should be delayed until after freeze-up this year. In other words, the crop should be dormant seeded.

Dormant seeding is the practice of seeding forages into cold or frozen soil to prevent germination until the following spring. This seeding method is often recommended for saline areas were water tables are high and there is a risk of getting stuck during the growing season. Since seed can germinate at temperatures as low as 5 C, for the majority of Saskatchewan the risk of premature germination can be reduced by dormant seeding sometime after November 15.

If time and conditions allow prior to freeze-up, it is best to prepare the site. Manage heavy crop residue or areas with high weed cover by baling or grazing them off. If perennial weeds are present they should be sprayed prior to seeding because in most cases a grass-legume mixture will be seeded and chemical control options will be limited after seeding.

Direct seeding into clean standing stubble is the best scenario. Standing stubble (especially cereal stubble) helps trap snow and provides protection for seedlings in the spring. And direct seeding into frozen soil will help ensure that the seed is placed at the right depth — about ¼ to ½ inch below the surface. As with summer seeding, good packing is essential to provide good seed-to-soil contact and this helps protect the seed.

Although seed can be broadcast, surface residue can perch the seed in the residue leaving it exposed to weathering. Seed predation by rodents can also be a problem.

Regardless of seeding method, experience has shown that the dormant seeding rate should be increased by 25 per cent over regular spring seeding rates to ensure adequate germination and seedling survival. This is especially important when seeding into saline areas where survival may be lower due to saline soils and weed competition.

After two consecutive dry seasons in Saskatchewan, many ephemeral wetlands have dried to the point where they can either be cropped next year (pending tillage and weed control) or can be seeded to perennials. If the area is heavily infested with foxtail barley and other salt-tolerant species, perennials may be the wiser choice.

Fall preparation and dormant seeding in November may help get the job done.

Terry Kowalchuk is a forage crops provincial specialist with Saskatchewan Agriculture.

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