Purdue Specialist Explains Ways to Best Establish Spring Forage

With planting season approaching, farmers planning to grow forage should keep in mind six major considerations that could determine the success of their crop, a Purdue Extension specialist says.

“Establishing forage requires planning and great attention to detail,” said Keith Johnson. “If all elements are considered, your efforts can result in a great forage stand that will provide healthy, sustainable and cost-effective feed for livestock in all seasons.”

To be considered when planting forage:

Choice of seeding site. Johnson said forage sites should be considered according to the purpose of the forage being planted.

For forage that will be harvested by equipment (hay and silage) farmers should note the proximity of the field to the site where the crop will be stored. If it costs too much or takes too long to transport the crop to the storage site, the location should be reconsidered.

For pastures supporting livestock, farmers need to be sure that the site has access to a reliable water source.

Also, for farmers planning to use electric fencing, access to an electrical outlet must be near, or there needs to be a willingness to energize the fence with solar powered batteries.

Soil. Different forages thrive in different soil types. In general, seedbeds should be firm and weed-free. Johnson says no-till seeding can provide good seed-to-soil contact. For soils amended with limestone or fertilizer, more aggressive tilling may be necessary.

“Plantback restriction” – that is, the time necessary to wait on planting new seeds so they are unaffected by the previous crop’s herbicide treatment – should also be considered carefully, as residual herbicide remaining in the soil can kill seedlings. This information is found on herbicide labels.

Forage choice. Johnson said the forage type to plant depends on the species and class of animal that will consume it. He suggests consulting with an Extension forage specialist, forage seed sales personnel or livestock nutritionist to determine what forage will work best for a specific livestock species and class.

Producers may also want to mix different types of forages to reap their individual benefits. For instance, mixing a legume forage such as alfalfa with a forage grass would provide a nitrogen source to the grass so commercial nitrogen fertilizer would not be needed. The grass-legume combination also would be higher in protein and magnesium than a grass grown alone. Inclusion of a compatible grass with a bloat-potential legume can reduce the chances of this disorder occurring.

Also, producers should consider yield potential, disease and insect resistance and seed quality when evaluating different varieties available within a forage species.

Seeding. To seed forage fields, Johnson said equipment type, depth of seed, date planted, herbicide application and seeding rate should be taken into account for specific forages. This information can be found most easily by consulting a forage-trained specialist. For more information on seeding rates, visit Johnson’s forage blog at

Weed control. Effective ways to reduce weed competition are by using an herbicide labeled for the forages being grown, clipping or including a companion crop at the time of seeding. A good example of a companion crop is spring oat; when planted at the time of forage seeding, spring oat can assist in shading weeds and can be harvested as a forage before advanced grain fill occurs.

Time of use. Johnson noted that in the case of pasture forage, animals should not be released onto a field too soon. The forage should be rooted well and soil firm enough to support livestock.

Source: Keith Johnson and Emma Hokpkins, Purdue University 

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