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Here's What to Look for in your Forage Establishment

Posted: Jun 11, 2021

With Kent Price

Your forage stand is a long-term investment, so it’s critical to properly evaluate your crops in their establishment year. There’s a lot to consider when it comes to evaluating your establishment early on in the season, but density is perhaps the most important factor, says Kent Price, a Regional Account Manager for BrettYoung specializing in forage crops.

“You want density,” Price explains, “The main concern on initial establishment is that you have enough plants that have emerged.”

So, how do you achieve the right density and establish a healthy stand? Price can help answer that question.

Count Your Plants

Count plants of each species per square foot or per square metre. Price says that the normal seeding rate for most forage crops is 80 to 90 seeds per square foot, which typically yields between seven and 30 plants.

Ideal plant densities will vary depending on growing conditions in your region. Dry regions need a lower plant density in order to reduce competition for available moisture, while areas with high volumes of rainfall require a higher density to maximize forage production and minimize weed intrusion. Ideal density also depends on the species you’re growing. Hay stands, for example, want a higher alfalfa population than pasture stands.

If an early sampling of your stand shows low numbers, Price suggests that you may want to plant additional seed right away. Conversely, if a stand looks a little thin later in the season, you may want to wait until the following spring to add extra seed.

What about this Drier Season?

Early reports indicate that 2021 could be one of the driest growing seasons in some time for Western Canada. That could have an impact on forage crops, Price says, because forage seed is much smaller than most other types of seed, and germination times are much longer. This means you need adequate moisture levels near the seed’s surface.

Price recommends aiming for enhanced soil packing this season to ensure that your forage seedlings receive the moisture they need. Packing increases seed to soil contact, making soil moisture that is present more available to the seed. With less packed soil, increased airspace means that moisture isn’t contacting the seed enough to facilitate germination.

“It’s more important with forages than probably any other crop,” he stresses. “It allows the seeds to get the moisture faster. It’s one of the most important things in getting fast, even establishment of forage seed.”

Weed Control

Weeds are one of the biggest risks to forage crops, with some of the most common weed threats being stinkweed, wild buckwheat, lambsquarters, wild mustard and volunteer canola. Price says that there aren’t many chemical options to use in mixed stands but advises that any Bromoxynil-based herbicide is generally safe to use with forages. If spraying isn’t possible, Price recommends that you cut weeds back as early as possible to manage competition to their primary crop.

Inoculants and Fertilizer

Consider also using fertilizer and inoculants. Price says inoculants are especially critical with a forage like alfalfa because it won’t fix its own nitrogen without it. The rule of thumb with fertilizer is that any nutrients that are harvested with forages need to be replaced. In the case of grasses, that means nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium will need to be replenished after harvest.

Companion Crops

Important allies for forage growers are companion crops like ryegrass, which can boost yield, reduce erosion and help control weeds. However, Price cautions against planting excessive companion crops, as that can prevent their primary crop from receiving the sunlight, moisture and other ingredients it needs for strong, sustained growth. In the case of cereals, he recommends a companion crop seeding rate of below 30 pounds per acre.

Test Your Soil

Soil testing is another consideration, Price says, and one that’s critically important before the first production year. Knowing your pH and salinity will help decide what species are suitable to plant in a specific field. BrettYoung offers salt tolerant products like Barricade SLT alfalfa and AC Saltlander green wheatgrass that can help maximize your forage yields in tougher zones.

Management Techniques

Regardless of the numbers, it’s a good idea to evaluate your in-crop management techniques. One of the best places to start is with a visit with your local forage specialist. Price also recommends striking up a conversation with neighbouring forage growers about what has or hasn’t worked for them in the past.

To learn more about what you should look out for this year, or to get a customized stand evaluation for your field, contact your BrettYoung Regional Account Manager.

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