Details are Critical in Achieving Successful Stand Establishment

Many of our readers are preparing to plant cool season forages.  Whether you are planting annuals in a regular rotation, or are transitioning into improved perennial forages (like novel endophyte tall fescue), the process of planting is one of the critical times you need to pay attention to details.  Most of our recommended management practices are important, but many of them offer a little more flexibility in timing and exact application.  Here are a few things to consider in detail before you take the drill to the field.

First, it is important to do a good job of managing the previous crop.  Regular soil testing will help you maintain a desirable pH, and P and K levels.  Fertility in general should be at least moderate at the time you plant.  You might use a little starter fertilizer for the new crop, but that is not a substitute to having fertile soil to plant into. 

In our area it has been a good summer for forage growth, and as a result many farmers have more residual forage than they might in a more typical year.   Summer smother crops especially have really done their job this year of putting on a lot of biomass.  Summer forages should be burned down with an herbicide in many situations following the last harvest, but that just kills the stand and does not remove any biomass.  If you terminate your summer forage with significant biomass and then mow it with a rotary mower you could end up with clumps of residue that are too deep for successful forage establishment.

If you are using tillage to create a seedbed then there is an opportunity to incorporate any excessive residue.  However, if you are planting no-till, as most of our farmers do, then excessive amounts of residue will interfere with new forage establishment.  Sometimes this is a physical interference, but sometimes it is due to a chemical mechanism knows as “alleopathy” where a plant secretes compounds that prevent good establishment of new seedings.  

If you have a lot of summer residue you need to get it under control before you drill.   This can be accomplished by mobbing down the field with a large group of cows or by removing the excess forage as a hay crop.  Some crops like sorghum-sudan and millet pose mostly physical challenges, while crabgrass can have some alleopathic effects as well.  Either completely removing the residue or stomping it flat so it will decay rapidly can dramatically improve establishment success.

Another critical aspect of successful establishment is having good seed.  Make sure that you decide what you will plant and get your seed ordered and on hand when you need it.  Wise men frequently say “there is nothing more expensive than cheap seed”, and that is so true.  Especially when planting perennials, the extra cost of using high quality seed pays off the first year and continues to pay for the life of the stand.  If you are planting annuals you can try some new varieties each year and see how they do.  You don’t have that opportunity with perennials.  For example, if you are planting tall fescue most forage agronomists would recommend using a novel endophyte infected variety that carries both the usual information on germination and purity, but also the novel endophyte quality control tag from the Alliance for Grassland Renewal.

Remember to adjust the seeding rate for the germination percentage!  If the seed you have has 85% germination and the recommended seeding rate is 15 lbs, then you need to plant 17.5 lbs.  If the seed has 5% inert material then you need to plant 18.5 lbs.

Once you have good seed, and have the field ready for planting there are still more details to consider.  Assuming you either own a drill or have access to one, you need to make sure that the drill is prepared including making sure all drop tubes are clear and that there is no trash in the seedbox that might interfere with the seed metering mechanism.  Also, you need to calibrate the drill each time you plant.  It is great to keep records of how you had the drill set last time (including the actual amount per acre planted), but you still need to check it as seed size and texture can both vary and that will influence how fast the seed flows through the drill.  The technique for calibrating the drill will vary with the make, so do a little homework and develop a quick way of double checking to make sure the seeding rate is correct.  Nothing is more frustrating than having a lot of seed left over, except for running out of seed before you are done.  Either can happen if you don’t calibrate!

The next critical detail is seed depth.  Planting too deep is one of the main causes of poor stands on small seeded forage crops.  Tilled fields are best seeded by broadcasting or using a light grain drill followed by cultipacking.  Deep planting is less of a problem with no-till, but it is still can happen if soil is moist.  Again, drills vary in how depth is adjusted, but before you start, run the drill on some representative ground, assess how deep it is putting seed and adjust accordingly.  Some large seeded annuals like rye, oats or wheat are forgiving and can be planted at an inch or more in depth without problems, but smaller seeded perennials like novel endophyte tall fescue need to go at ¼ inch depth, and that is sometimes a challenge.

Finally, once you have the field ready and the seed is in the calibrated drill, you still need to be very careful as you progress over the field. Stop and check things initially and then periodically.  Make sure seed is dropping for each row, and double check depth.  For ¼ inch you should be able to see some of the seed right on the surface…..otherwise it is probably going too deep. 

Also, take your time and drive carefully. It is much better to overlap rows than to leave gaps.  Going slow and making sure you can see the last row is critical, but in some lighting and soil conditions it can be a challenge.  Some tools to help with this exist include row markers, foam markers, and gps systems. 

The critical concern is that gaps and skips lead to places where weeds can get started and you want to avoid that.  With perennials you can consider “cross drilling” where you calibrate for half the amount of seed and make two drill passes over the field in a perpendicular pattern, leading to a checker board appearance.  This makes for a denser canopy early in stand development, and also helps you correct for some of those missed spots  that would be bare if you only drilled once.   

Planting is what we call a critical control point.  If you do a really good job at that point, it helps with a good outcome far down the road.  If you do a sloppy job it will haunt you for the life of the crop, and with novel endophyte tall fescue that will be many years.  This year, whether you are planting novel endophyte tall fescue or some other cool season forage take your time, focus on the details, and do it the best you possibly can.  It will pay off later.

Matt Poore, NC State Professor and President of the Alliance for Grassland Renewal

The Alliance for Grassland Renewal is a national organization focused on enhancing the appropriate adoption of novel endophyte tall fescue technology through education, incentives, self-regulation and promotion.  For more resources or to learn more about the Alliance for Grassland Renewal, go to

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