Frost Seeding - By Dean Oswald
Pasture productivity can be greatly improved with the addition of frost seeding. After weed control and fertility management, frost seeding is the most beneficial management decision for improving Illinois pasture quality and productivity.
Both legumes and grasses can be successfully seeded in late winter with low labor and equipment requirements. Frost seeding is accomplished by broadcasting seed onto the soil surface without needing herbicides, expensive equipment or tillage. Alternate freezing and thawing temperatures are necessary for good seed incorporation.
Feb. 15 is a good date to remember for frost seeding in Illinois. As we move into March, often temperatures are not cold enough to get good results. Fall and winter over-grazing of pastures to be frost seeded can help reduce excess plant residue and provide more exposed, bare soil.
Legumes add quality and volume to the pasture by providing nitrogen to the grasses that grow next to them. This will improve the crude protein and amount of forage available for grazing. Grasses can be added to thicken up the stand and increase forage production. Species selection of grasses and legumes is also important to the success of frost seeding.
Smaller seeded grass species work best for frost seeding. Orchard grass, ryegrasses and tall fescues work well. Large fluffy seeds, like smooth brome, do not frost seed well. Legumes, such as red clover and ladino (white) clover, are best for frost seeding. Alfalfa and bird’s-foot trefoil are best drilled with good seed/soil contact.
Here are recommended per-acre seeding rates: red clover, (seeded alone) 4 to 8 pounds or (mixture) 3 to 4 pounds; ladino clover, (seeded alone) 2 pounds or (mixture) 1 pound; orchard grass, (seeded alone) 3 to 4 pounds or (mixture) 1 to 2 pounds; annual or perennial ryegrass, (seeded alone) 6 to 8 pounds or (mixture) 2 to 3 pounds; and tall fescue, (seeded alone) 6 to 8 pounds or (mixture) 2 to 3 pounds.
Management is critical for the success of frost seeded pastures. New seedlings need reduced competition from companion plants and weeds. Frost seeded pastures need to be grazed on a timely basis during the spring and early summer to allow light penetration into the forage canopy. Legume plants are safe from trampling when they reach the three-leaf or trifoliate stage.
Don’t apply nitrogen fertilizers to frost seeded pastures because this may cause grasses to outcompete legumes and reduce chances of successful establishment. Phosphorus, potassium fertility and proper pH are necessary for legume establishment.
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