Frost seeding can help land in pasture

Soils are often too wet for tillage in March, but frost seeding will help improve your pasture.

Posted on March 19, 2014 at 8:56 p.m.

March is often thought of as a transition time between winter’s icy blast and spring’s warm breezes and showers. Soils are often too wet in March to do much tillage, but the itch remains to get out there and do something.

If you have land in pasture, there are a few steps you can do now to improve it. Frost seeding, or spreading seed on a pasture in late winter or early spring, is one of those ideas. The freezing and thawing action over the next few weeks helps move the seed into good contact with the soil.

One of the basic requirements of frost seeding is some exposed soil. If there is too much cover, the seeds will get hung up on the grass, and never make it to the surface. Overgrazing or a light disking can help. The idea is to break up the sod enough to see some soil. As mushy as the soils can be now, it is important not to compact the soils when doing the disking. Many farmers prefer to do this light tillage in the fall.

Red clover is the most used frost seeding species in our area. Generally, most people use six to eight pounds of the seed per acre. Red clover can tolerate a wide range of fertility and pH conditions and tolerates drought well. It has a reputation of being a short-lived perennial in pastures, but some of the new varieties can last more than 3 years.

Some people combine birdsfoot trefoil with red clover, at a rate of four to six pounds per acre. It has a reputation for being harder to establish, often not showing up for until the second season after seeding. However, this is often about the time the red clover begins to go into decline, and once established, it fills in well.

Both of these plants are legumes, which mean they can fix nitrogen from the air in the soil when the proper bacteria are present. If you have not planted these legumes in the field for several years, it is wise to inoculate the seed to be sure they get off to a good start.

One type of clover, alsike, is commonly found in pasture improvement mixtures, but may not be a good choice for some producers. Alsike clover can increase sensitivity to sunlight when it is grazed wet, which is particularly a problem in white skinned cattle and horses. We have had several reports of alsike poisoning over the past three or four years.

Animals poisoned following ingestion of dew-dampened alsike clover usually refuse to eat. They may drool and their tongues and lips may become swollen. In cattle and horses with photosensitization, the white skin typically becomes swollen, and it may slough leaving unsightly scars. In sheep, the eyelids, ears, nose, and mouth swell, giving rise to the name bighead — these parts may at first ooze serum and later scabs may form. Intense itching may develop.

Jeff Burbrink is an extension educator at Purdue Extension Elkhart County, 17746 C.R. 34, Suite E, Goshen, IN 46528-6898. Reach him by phone at 533-0554, by fax at 533-0254 or by email at jburbrink@purdue.edu.

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