Establishing pasture for small landholders

Page last updated: Thursday, 14 December 2017 - 2:30pm

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The quality of any new pasture will be a reflection of the time and preparation you devote to establishment.

While optimum seeding times and pasture species will vary between regions, the basic principles of successful pasture establishment remain the same.

Preparation

Early autumn is the ideal time to carry out final paddock preparation before seeding new pastures.

Final grazing should be done to remove any remaining dry matter bulk and allow weeds to germinate after rain.

Aim for a residual groundcover of 1–2cm tall if grazing sheep and 3–4cm if grazing cattle.

To encourage an even germination, consider dragging a set of harrows or heavy chain over your paddock.

This is a good idea even if you do not intend sowing new seed.

During the following few weeks, monitor for pests such as red-legged earth mites (RLEM) and blue oat mites, which will be hatching when the maximum day temperature drops below 20ºC. Treat these with insecticides as necessary.

If you intend sowing a new pasture, spray with a non-selective herbicide or cultivate the soil, about three to four weeks after the weeds have germinated to ensure they won’t survive and compete with your new pasture.

The option you take will probably depend on whether you plan to seed your pasture conventionally or by direct seeding.

Choosing a seeding option

More seedlings germinate using conventional cultivation, as this creates the most suitable environment for the seed.

However, cultivating encourages more weeds to germinate as the pasture grows, creating greater competition for seedlings.

With direct seeding, fewer pasture seeds tend to germinate, but fewer weeds germinate to compete with the pasture.

Ensure your seeding equipment has been set up correctly for accurate seed placement.

If using conventional seeding equipment beware of sowing pasture too deeply (the ideal depth will vary slightly with species chosen, but no deeper than 5cm).

Using rollers after conventional seeding is generally recommended to increase the soil/seed contact, but beware of surface crusting if you have heavy soils.

There is no need to use harrows or rollers when direct seeding.

Taking the test

Where possible, ensure your seed is certified or quality assured and, if concerned, carry out a simple germination test.

If you are including legumes such as clover in your pasture mix, the seed should be inoculated with rhizobia and where necessary, lime pelleted.

Trace elements, insecticides and fungicides can also be applied to the seed to enhance pasture establishment in some situations.

Adding fertiliser at seeding will ensure the germinating pasture has access to sufficient nutrients to get it off to a good start.

The essential nutrients for early pasture growth are phosphorus (P) nitrogen (N) and sulphur (S).

Be careful with nitrogen rates as too much can hinder germination and stop legumes producing their own.

Nitrogen can be applied after the pasture has established to increase growth rates.

Correct seeding rates will ensure a dense pasture stand, but be aware it is a matter of balance and it varies between species — too much seed can result in excessive competition between seedlings.

Watching the grass grow

Newly established pastures need regular monitoring and this may mean close inspection.

Common pasture pests, such RLEM, are tiny but they can be devastating to newly-established pastures if left unchecked.

While inspecting the pasture, also check for emerging weeds.

Weed identification charts can make this job easier as you want to ensure you are pinpointing the right culprit.

Some weeds can be controlled with selective herbicides but it is easiest to kill weeds before seeding.

Keep off the grass

Even though your expertly established pasture may look lush and inviting, avoid the temptation of grazing too soon.

Wait until the overall pasture height reaches about 10–15cm and the pasture is well anchored in the soil.

An initial quick grazing at this stage will encourage further tillering and root development, but don’t overdo it.

Allow grasses to set seed during the first year and avoid the temptation to make hay during this time.

Some pasture species will have specific grazing requirements.

A combination of set stocking and rotational grazing usually works well. Remember the most economic pasture is the one that establishes properly.