There are a few common mistakes made that limit the success of new forage establishments” says Joel Bagg, a former forage specialist with Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, and now with Quality Seeds. “One of the biggest problems is not seeding new forage stands often enough. Many alfalfa-based stands are simply too old, resulting in huge losses of forage yield. Alfalfa yields are normally very high during the first two years, but by the third year, yields can decline by 15 to 20 per cent, and possibly 35 per cent by the fourth year. That is a lot of yield to give up. In addition to higher forage yields, alfalfa can supply the equivalent of 100 lbs./ac. nitrogen to the corn crop in the rotation, Corn yields can increase by 10 to 15 per cent following alfalfa rather than corn after corn.
“Poor packing before and after seeding can be a major problem,” he adds. Forage seeds are very small, and it is essential that there is good seed-to-soil contact, particularly in dry soils. A firm, level, clod-free seedbed is very important for uniform seeding depth and good seed-to-soil contact. A loose, lumpy seedbed dries out quickly, and lumps make seedling emergence difficult. Soil should be firm enough at planting for a footprint to sink no deeper than nine mm (3⁄8 inch). If necessary, pack before seeding, in addition to packing after the seed drill, as packing after seeding results in more rapid and even germination.”
Jack Kyle, a retired Ontario pasture specialist says, “forage crops remove a lot of phosphorus and potassium and have high soil nutrient requirements. It is very important to soil test in many locations and then fertilize as necessary. If soil pH is low, it is important to apply lime to correct the pH level. Most soils in Ontario are in an acceptable pH range but some are low and lime should be incorporated prior to seeding for optimum benefit. Species and variety selection will be influenced by intended use of the forage. Alfalfa is the dominant species so it is necessary to choose grass species that have a similar maturity to the alfalfa.”
“If (you are) using a cereal cover crop it should be harvested as forage rather than allowed to go to grain maturity,” adds Kyle. “The early harvest in late June or the first week in July in Ontario will reduce the competition for sunlight and moisture and allow the forage seedlings to develop more vigorously. ”
For years, forage specialists across Canada have stressed the benefit of using certified forage seed that is recommended for your ecosystem. Buying cheap forage seed is a poor way to save. As land costs increase, the cost of seed is only a small percentage of the cost of producing forage. Cheaper, common seed has no yield assurance, disease resistance or winter hardiness. Seed is unpredictable and will vary from year to year. The use of high performance, proven varieties, rather than unknown brands or common seed, is strongly recommended.
“It takes very little extra yield to justify seeding the higher valued certified seed.” says Joel Bagg.
“Lack of weed control during the establishment period will impact yield and forage quality for the life of the stand. Herbicide control of broadleaf annual weeds at establishment is especially important.” he says. “To lower the risk of injury to alfalfa seedlings, determine the optimum time of spraying by the stage of development of the new seedlings and consult your provincial herbicide guides for recommended rates.”
Grant Lastiwka, a forage and livestock business specialist in Alberta, agrees with Bagg. “Pack and firm the seedbed before planting and afterwards depending on seeding method. Blowing forage seed on with a fertilizer spreader does not work as well as direct placement, especially in dry years. Paying to have it seeded by someone who is skilled may be well worth the cost, especially with seed prices being high. If seeding in sod, I am now thinking mid- to the third week of April or very late fall using a good no-till drill works best.”
John Waddington, a retired forage agronomist who worked with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Melfort and Swift Current, reviewed the research done in the last 100 years on seeding companion crops with perennial forages and found weather played a major role in the successful establishment of the forage.
Companion crops can also affect forage seedling size, with smaller plants unable to produce maximum yields the following spring. This is why forage yields are often lower in the first year when forages are seeded with a companion crop than when they are established alone.
The economic value of seeding forages with or without a companion crop in the black soil zone of Western Canada depends on the relative prices of forage, grain, and cereal hay, because forage yields depend so much on spring moisture. Wheat, barley, oats, canola, flax, and peas have been used successfully to establish forages.
In the dark brown soil zone, evapotranspiration is greater and precipitation less, on average, than in the black soil zone. There is usually adequate moisture in the soil from snowmelt in spring for seed germination. Because evapotranspiration normally exceeds summer rainfall, plants come under stress and forage establishment is more uncertain with a companion crop in those conditions.
In the dark brown soil zone, rotations including under-seeded alfalfa are usually not economical because the forage yield is linked to the variation in spring weather. For this reason it’s not advisable to use a companion crop to establish forages in the brown soil zone.
When you do use a companion crop Waddington recommends cross-seeding the forage in a separate operation. That usually results in a better stand.
Surya Acharya, a plant breeder at the Lethbridge research centre, is also cautious about using companion crops that vigorously compete with perennial, slow-to-establish forage crops for nutrients, water and sunlight, making the stand weaker than a new forage crop that only competes with weeds.
He also recommends mowing seedling perennial forage crops down to four inches when they reach eight to 10 inches high. “This doesn’t harm the young perennial plants, but helps reduce annual weed competition by eliminating possible weed seed production. Pruning also causes the perennial forage crops to stool out and cover the ground,” he adds.