Working With Nature to Improve Your Pastures

It’s that time of year when you begin to look at your pastures and wonder if anything will ever grow out there again.  Although there are some wisps of green poking out through the thatch, if your pastures are anything like mine they are a sad combination of mud and the lush memories of last years mixed species.  First off, let me assure you that the grass will grow again, the birds will return, and that your critters are going to get out.  My second point is that this is time to think about strengthening your sward and improving your pasture by adding some seeds to the mix.

Over the years I have learned that there are two ways to do things to the land.  You can either work with nature or you can work against it.  In the against category we have farmer Joe who has decided that he is going to plant the newest and greatest cool and warm season grass packet fresh outta the research facilities in Brazil.  The studies are in and these pasture grasses, when drilled into the pasture with just the perfect amount of moisture, combined with a warmer than usual June, will provide umpteen pounds of forage per acre and develop his flerd (sheep flock combined with cow herd) into a true monster of production, allowing him to start payments on his new ATV and be the talk of the auction barns for years to come.

So Joe buys his seeds, prepares all of his pastures by tilling and getting the seed beds to the exact specifications.  He drills to the prescribed depths and like everyone else he sits back and hopes the weather cooperates…but we all know it doesn’t.  It is a wetter than usual year and many of the drilled seeds sprout very well but are hit hard by fungal and bacterial diseases.  As these newly drilled seeds begin to die, weeds start to take over the tilled soil, shading out the planted seeds and slowly taking over all of his fields.  When Joe prepped and tilled his soil he also destroyed much of the native biota in the ground.  This caused a top down collapse in the health of the soil and allowed those species that enter first into the succession of disturbance to thrive and begin the process anew.  These flagship species are what we would normally call weeds but I have a feeling they see themselves a pioneers.

Now not all of Joe’s seeds were affected and he does have some pretty nice patches of new grass growing on his property but without the summer heat that these species are accustomed to in their native Brazil, they quickly lose vigor come the first hint of cold in September and he is only able to graze them once this season with no capability to stockpile any of it for winter.

Now Farmer Fred has different approach.  He is not a fan of sitting on his tractor all day and he decides that instead of developing a seed bed and deep drilling seeds into his pastures he is going to improve his sward by seeding native grasses and legumes on top of the soil.  This is referred to as frost seeding and it is a concept that in keeping with nature.  Plants tend to make a lot of seed at the end of the year because statistically not much of that seed will survive to germinate and grow. Some will be eaten by voles under the winter snow, some will germinate early to be munched on by the starving deer, and some will be taken by fungal or bacterial predation.

What Fred has on his side is that he is going to mimic this natural phenomenon.  Frost seeding involves broadcasting seeds over the snow or on early spring or late fall ground when the nights are still below freezing and the days are in thaw temperatures.  This freeze thaw cycle draws the seeds down into the soil where they are ready to germinate when the spring warm and wet is upon us.  Fred also has the advantage of broadcasting on foot and avoid making ruts or compacting the soil with his tractor.  To make matters better, Fred has chosen to seed native, perennial grasses and legumes onto his pastures.  These are species that are well established and proven to thrive in this area and climate.  By using native grasses that have a record of performance in his climate he has forced the most important factor in his seed establishment to be seed to soil contact.  Ideally his pastures will have been eaten or mowed down at the end of the season to allow the seeds to fall through the thatch and contact the bare dirt.  This is crucial to high germination rates and along with timing, the largest factors in the success of frost seeding.

So the grasses are finally growing on Fred’s place and although he didn’t get the germination rate that Joe did by drilling the seeds into the ground, he has much better coverage and grow out because the native grasses and legumes hold court over their usual areas where these plants were tilled under in Joe’s seed bed preparation.  Joe has also saved some serious money by not running his tractor over the acreage prepping the seed beds.

This has been an awful lot to get this point across but there it is.  Working with nature and your particular climate can save you some serious headaches and money.  There is a time and a place for all different techniques to re seed your farm, improve your perennial sward, or graze your animals, but working with nature as opposed to against it will always be advantageous to your system.  This is what Fred has done.  He has mimicked the natural conditions in his area to accomplish the same goals.  Our perennial grasses and legumes spend the summer making seeds, which are dispersed in the fall and are drawn into the soil by the freeze and thaw cycle of winter to emerge in the summer and begin the cycle anew.  I encourage you to go out and get a broadcaster and a nice legume heavy seed mix and do some frost seeding this year.  Try and let some these areas go to seed and disperse their own seeds across your acreage at no further cost to you.  This simple and effective technique mirrors the natural process, it allows you to walk your property and think on what areas are in need of improvement, and if you are also utilizing progressive grazing practices you can be sure that this technique will pay off for years to come.

There are many techniques and preferences when frost seeding pastures.  Many farmers utilize no till seeders to drill these seeds at shallow depths when conditions are right.  But some pastures are too wet or too dry for that work.  My advice is to watch the video, read the fact sheets, talk to your seed dealers and watch the weather to decide what and how is best for your particular property.  Oh, and you can always call me and we can talk too!
Here are some links to frost seeding guides

Excellent short video on how to frost seed with a tractor or broadcast by hand

Frost Seeding PDF Fact sheet

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