Part 1: The Pre-Planning Process…
Over the years since I first came to Delaware, I have received numerous requests concerning overseeding or renovating pasture and hay fields. Unfortunately, these requests usually come about just before someone wants to actually plant. In reality, producers should begin considering the process as much as a year ahead of the actual time that they want to plant a field. Since our fall plantings of forage crops seem to perform better than spring plantings, it’s a good time to begin a discussion of the process. Often, we find ourselves moving into mid- to late-fall without having taken the time to really consider all decisions that have to go into improving the odds that the planting will be successful. Seed costs alone can equate to more than a hundred dollars per acre in investment expense; and, if we really take into account all the variable costs, a new pasture or hay field can easily represent an investment of hundreds of dollars per acre.
So in the pre-planning process, what’s first? I know many get tired of hearing the phrase but testing the fertility of your soil far ahead of time is still the number one issue. The proper sampling depth is 0 to 4 inches in fields where you will be using a no-till drill to seed the forage and on fields that you do not plan to use deep tillage and have not been applying significant quantities of commercial nitrogen (N) fertilizer. In these instances, you will not be incorporating lime to neutralize acidity from the N fertilizer or incorporating large amounts of phosphorus [P or (P2O5)] or potassium [K or (K2O)] fertilizer. Your expectation is that the soil test will indicate that the soil pH is in the 6.0 to 6.8 range and the P and K levels are in the medium to optimum range. If your expectations do not prove true and the pH is low enough to require several tons per acre of limestone or the P and K levels are low to very low and the fertilizer and lime needs to be mixed into the soil thoroughly, you will need to change plans and consider some type of tillage to incorporate fertilizer and/or lime.
If you have used large quantities of commercial N fertilizer in the past, you really should take both a 0-2 inch depth sample for determining the soil acidity in the upper soil layer as well as a 0 to 4 inch depth sample for nutrient content (phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium and other essential elements). If you are unsure when limestone was last applied to the field, sampling both depths is a good approach since it will provide you with more information about the nutrient status of your field.
The reason for this distinction is that the ammonium or urea N forms that are applied as fertilizer are converted by soil bacteria into nitrate through a process called, nitrification, In this process, the soil bacteria oxidize the reduced form of N and release hydrogen ions that cause the soil to acidify. Since the N is all surface applied, the release of acidity near the soil surface can create a condition known as ‘acid roof’ where the top inch or two of soil is much more acidic than the deeper layers of soil. A second reason involves the very slow movement of limestone down through the soil. Studies on pastures in Connecticut many decades ago showed that lime moves downward at a rate of about 1 inch per year. Therefore, it takes a very long time to have an impact on the entire rooting zone of the forage grasses and legumes.
In fields where tillage is planned prior to establishing a forage crop, the traditional plow layer sample (0 to 8 inches) for both soil pH (acidity) and essential nutrient status is the appropriate choice. If the soil sample indicates that the soil must be limed, apply the recommended amount of limestone and work it into the soil as soon as possible to allow time for the limestone to neutralize soil acidity before planting time. If the weather after lime application and incorporation remains dry, the limestone will not completely dissolve and neutralize the soil acidity. I recommend that producers take a second soil test before planting in late summer or early fall to determine if any additional lime is needed. Additional agricultural lime and the recommended P2O5 and K2O fertilizer as well as any other needed nutrients can be applied and worked into the soil shortly before planting the field.
Everyone asks the question of whether to apply N at the time you plant a new field or seed a field you are renovating. My preference is that you should wait until the new grass is several inches tall and has enough biomass and roots to compete for applied N and store any extra N for future growth. Very small forage seedlings use and need very little N, no more than a couple of pounds N per acre, until they reach 2 to 4 inches in height. Often the residual N from organic matter mineralization during the summer, will supply the small amount of N the seedlings require. Once the forage plants have enough leaf area to capture the sun’s energy and convert it into more plant tissue or into sugars for storage, the demand for N will increase significantly. When forage seedlings are very small, weeds or current vegetation in renovated fields are likely to be better able to compete with new forage seedlings for N, light, water, and other nutrients. Although annual weeds and/or current vegetation will be present when N fertilizer is finally applied to the new seedlings, the perennial forage seedlings will be in a better competitive position to compete for the components needed for growth and establishment. Summer annual weeds that germinated with the forage crop will be killed at the first fall/winter frost and provide the forage plants with more space, sun, water, and nutrients.
In the next installment, I’ll cover the question we most commonly receive, “What should I plant?”
This article was submitted by Dr. Richard W. Taylor, Extension Agronomist, University of Delaware. Dr. Taylor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org