Penn State
ForagesPeopleTopicsResourcesSelection ToolContact Info


Topics : Successful Forage Establishment

Successful Forage Establishment

  • Planning One Year Ahead to Improve Establishment Success
  • Planning Six Months Ahead to Improve Establishment Success
  • Following Sound Tillage and Seeding Practices:
  • Properly Manage Young Forage Seedings

Download the Successful Forage Crop Establishment document in Adobe PDF format.

Additional Forage Establishment Information via the Forage Information System (FIS)


Understanding Basic Establishment Principles

Regardless of the seeding date or seeding method, there are a few key agronomic principles that should be kept in mind when attempting to establish forage crops.

  1. Seeding depth and seed-to-soil contact are critical. A general rule-of thumb is that seeds should not be seeded deeper that five times their diameter. For most forage crops this means that seeding depth should not exceed 3/8". Seeding deeper will reduce drastically the number of seedlings that will establish.
    After planting, seeds must absorb water from the soil before they germinate. Poor seed-to-soil contact will delay water absorption, allow seeds to dry after absorbing water, and in general cause poor germination and forage establishment.
  2. Recommended seeding rates are designed to compensate for normal forage seed and seedling losses during establishment. Seeding at lower rates than recommended can jeopardize the success of the seeding. Refer to Penn State's Agronomy Guide for forage seeding rate recommendations.
  3. Legumes have the ability to convert atmospheric nitrogen into plant nitrogen, through a symbiotic relationship with rhizobia bacteria. In many soils, sufficient numbers of rhizobia bacteria are already present to adequately infect legume roots, particularly if the same legume species has been grown in the field within the past few years. Inoculation (adding rhizobia bacteria to the seed prior to planting) is recommended when the legume being planted has not been grown in the field for the past three years. Inoculation is inexpensive insurance that sufficient bacteria will be in the soil for proper nitrogen nutrition of the legume plant. Refer to Agronomy Facts 11, "Inoculation of Forage and Grain Legumes", for more details on inoculation.
  4. Use of a nurse crop with spring forage seedings is popular. Nurse crops can reduce soil erosion potential and weed infestations, but they can also compete with the forage seedlings for light, moisture, and soil nutrients. In addition, herbicides for weed control in a small grain/forage seedling mixture are limited (see Penn State's Agronomy Guide or product labels for additional information). If a nurse crop is used then remember to: 1) seed nurse crop at reduced rate [e.g. one bushel of oats per acre]; 2) avoid nitrogen application because it will increase nurse crop growth and competition with forage seedlings; 3) mow the nurse crop off when it is in the vegetative stage or harvest it early, during the milk or early dough stage, to minimize competition with forage seedlings.

On many Pennsylvania fields tillage is not practical because of rocks or the high potential for soil erosion. In these fields no-till seeding is recommended. However, in fields that will be tilled prior to forage seeding, a few guidelines should be followed.