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It's time to establish cool-season grasses that cover fields, lawns and fairways

August 27, 2012

The days are getting shorter and the temperatures will begin to slowly drop as summer gives way to autumn. Fall evokes the memories of the harvest. Fields yielding bushels of corn and soybeans with many a porch or lawn decorated with straw bales, corn shocks and bright orange pumpkins.

But fall is also a time to sow, as well as reap.

The cooler temperatures and the autumnal showers are the best time to establish the cool-season grasses that cover fields, lawns and fairways.

While I won’t deal with the latter two, grass is grass. In a previous column, I dealt with seeding annual grasses; this time I will address perennial grasses.

For most of our pastures and hay fields in the mid-Atlantic region, the grasses of choice are orchard grass, timothy, fescue and brome grass.

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It has been our experience that while perennial ryegrass is excellent forage and while it has worked well in temperate climates like Ireland, Holland and New Zealand, our summers are too hot and often too dry for a stand to persist. 

If you can irrigate, that is a different story. Or, if we have a wet summer, things can be different. In general, the current perennial ryegrasses that are available have not withstood our climate.

Where to start?

First, I hope you have taken a recent soil test. Recent means within the last two growing seasons. If not, get to it. I would, however, recommend a new soil test even if your most recent one is less than two seasons old if the previous crop was something other than grass.

Next, prepare the field. That can be as simple as harvesting the previous crop or applying a herbicide to eliminate competition for the new seeding.

Now you are ready for no-till seeding into the field of a previous crop. Set your drill at half the seeding rate and make two passes across the field in a diamond or crisscross pattern. For example, if the variety you are planting calls for a seeding rate of 20 pounds of seed to the acre, set the drill at 10 pounds and cover the field twice.

Also, fertilize according to the soil test recommendation. You also can apply manure to meet some of the plant needs, as long as it fits into your nutrient-management plan.

Another way to prepare the field is with tillage.

Till the field to incorporate the crop residue organic matter and any manure that might be applied, then seed the field using the broadcast method. You can broadcast any additional fertilizer right along with the seed. Follow the seeding with a roller or culti-packer.

Grass establishment should not be done in isolation, but in conjunction with the farm’s forage-management plan. Questions to be answered are: What am I feeding? what is the best method of harvest? and is pasturing an option? 

The answer to those questions will determine the species and variety of grass to be planted, as well as if a fence needs to be built or repaired.

Winter will follow, and it is a great time to evaluate your farming practices. Look at your forage needs and draw up a management plan. Once you have a plan, prepare to implement it.

If you have never tried rotational grazing, maybe it is time to start. Thousands of years have proven that cattle, sheep, horses, goats, alpacas and other herbivores are quite capable of harvesting their own forage.

However, we cannot leave them to their own devices. We must aid them by rotating the pastures they graze in order to give the plants some rest and time to regrow.

Many out there say old-timers didn’t rotate pastures. Well, actually they did, just not as intensively because they didn’t have the number of animals.

I can remember my aunt and uncle, who had a dairy farm in the 1950s and ’60s switching the cows between pastures after milking. 

My dad told me about how they grazed their cows on the Chesapeake and Ohio canal, driving them down in the morning and watching them all day, then driving them home for evening milking.

Yes, rotating pasture takes planning and management. And management takes time, but management pays off and it does not cost anything.

If you don’t have time to implement a management plan, then you either have too many animals or too many enterprises.

If you have questions or need assistance developing a forage or pasture-management plan, contact the local Extension office.

Remember, a management plan is like a map, but if you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.

Set your goals and plan to achieve them.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by email at jsemler@umd.edu.

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