Forage Planting – How to Do It Well

Dr. Mark Sulc, Professor and Extension Forage Specialist, Department of Horticulture and Crop Science and Jason Hartschuh, Extension Educator, Agriculture and Natural Resources, Crawford County, Ohio State University Extension

Early spring provides one of the two preferred times to seed perennial cool-season forages, the other being late summer. The outlook for this spring is for probabilities of above average precipitation in April and May. Planting opportunities will likely be few and short. An accompanying article on preparing now for planting, along with the following 10 steps to follow on the day you plant, will help improve chances for successful forage establishment.

  1. Check now to make sure soil pH and fertility are in the recommended ranges.  Follow the Tri-state Soil Fertility Recommendations ( Forages are more productive where soil pH is above 6.0, but for alfalfa, it should be 6.5 – 6.8. Soil phosphorus should be at least 20 ppm for grasses and 30 ppm for legumes, while minimum soil potassium should be 100 ppm for sandy soils less than 5 cation exchange capacity (CEC) or 120 ppm on all other soils. If seedings are to include alfalfa and soil pH is not at least 6.5, it would be best to apply lime now and delay establishing alfalfa until late summer (plant an annual grass forage in the interim).
  2. Plant high quality seed of known varietal source adapted to our region. Planting “common” seed (variety not stated) usually proves to be a very poor investment, yielding less even in the first or second year and having shorter stand life.
  3. Calibrate forage seeders ahead of time. Seed flow can vary greatly for different varieties and depending on the seed treatment and coatings applied. A good video on this entitled “Drill Calibration” is at
  4. Prepare a good seedbed as soon as soils are fit in April. The ideal seedbed for conventional seedings is smooth, firm, and weed-free. Don’t overwork the soil. Too much tillage depletes moisture and increases the risk of surface crusting. Firm the seedbed before seeding to ensure good seed-soil contact and reduce the rate of drying in the seed zone. Cultipackers and cultimulchers are excellent implements for firming the soil. If residue cover is more than 35%, use a no-till drill. No-till seeding is an excellent choice where soil erosion is a hazard. No-till forage seedings are most successful on silt loam soils with good drainage and are more difficult on clay soils or poorly drained soils. You will want no-till fields to be smooth because you do not want to bounce over them for all the years of this stand!

Try to finish seeding by the end of April in southern Ohio and by the first of May in northern Ohio. Timely planting gives forage seedlings the jump on weeds and the forages become established before summer stress sets in. Weed pressure increases with later plantings, and forages will not have as strong a root system developed by early summer when conditions