Alternative seed mixtures can be used successfully in pasture and meadow improvement
Lander – The second session in the Popo Agie Conservation District’s hay and pasture renovation workshop series, held on Nov. 7, focused on non-bloat legumes, alternative fall grazing and second crops.
Roger Hybner, research agronomist at the Bridger Plant Materials Center in Montana, spoke to attendees about options for irrigated land.
“One of the better non-bloat legumes is Delaney or Shoshone sainfoin,” Hybner said. “It is drought tolerant, though also a deer and elk magnet. Therefore, it is a good component in seed mixtures for wildlife.”
“Irrigating sainfoin like alfalfa will drown it out in a heartbeat,” he continued. “We put hay as the first crop and the sainfoin comes in later. This works better as the deer have moved into the hills and don’t hit it as hard.”
Birdsfoot trefoil is not as productive or palatable as sainfoin but can survive several weeks of flood irrigation. It reseeds itself, performs well in poorly drained soils and compares to alfalfa in growth and nitrate levels.
“Birdsfoot trefoil may require two years for establishment,” Hybner said, “and it needs a month of regrowth for over-wintering reserves. It has a 10 to 15 percent lower yield than alfalfa when grazed. If a producer has never had sainfoin or Birdsfoot trefoil, I highly recommend that they have it inoculated.”
Hybner said Cicer milkvetch has 40 percent more leaf and stem ratio than alfalfa and is comparable to it in nutrition value. Cicer milkvetch also drys rapidly when cut for baling and its stands generally improve with age.
“Cicer milkvetch is not overly affected by over grazing,” Hybner explained, “as it is a vigorous sod-forming rhizome. Under irrigation it can spread, especially with wildlife eating the seeds and leaving them all over the farm.”
“Plant it only with creeping foxtail, meadow brome or orchard grass mixes, as everything else will choke it out,” he cautioned. “It does better under grazing, as it has slow spring growth and can only stand two cuttings a year.”
Orchard grass is mainly used in hay mixtures or irrigated pasture.
“The orchard grass chokes out the alfalfa after a few years,” Hybner explained, “because it forms seeds before the alfalfa. I wish they would breed it to be later. It is still a good grass though.”
Hybner recommends meadow brome over smooth brome.
“I don’t like smooth brome at all. I call it the silent invader,” Hybner said. “It worked great for roadside reclamation in the 1950s when it was introduced into the U.S. Now it’s everywhere, and it isn’t the best forage. Other grasses have much better production and quality of feed than smooth brome.”
Alternative fall grazing
“Tall, crested and Siberian wheatgrasses are good early in the spring before producers take their cattle to the forest,” Hybner said. “If they’re looking for fall grazing on wheatgrass, I would go for Siberian.”
“Russian wildrye is the best grass for fall grazing, as it holds its protein and is invigorated by disturbance,” he continued. “We literally disked it two different directions in one field and had a great seed head growth the next year.”
Russian wildrye stands can last 10 to 15 years, it is a good dryland grass and will out compete cheatgrass. Russian wildrye produces one to 1.5 tons more per acre than crested wheatgrass.
“It is possible to suppress foxtail barley and cheatgrass using forage currently available,” Hybner said. “This is much cheaper and better for soil than spending money on chemicals. I really like using livestock, different grasses and then coming in with herbicides for integrated pest control.”
“The best weed control measures occur before planting. Producers can’t plant in a field that has a weed seed bank and expect the grass seedlings to compete. It works nicely to do a crop rotation for one to three years prior,” he continued.
“The Cooper mix is excellent,” Hybner continued. “Mow the first cutting, swath it and then graze with stock. It normally gets five to six tons an acre under a pivot.”
The Cooper seed mix was developed by Jack Cooper, ranch manager, and Scott Cooper, USDA Agriculture Research Service forage scientist, over 30 years ago for use on the Cooper Hereford Ranch in Willow Creek, Mont.
The Cooper mix consists of one pound of orchard grass, four pounds of meadow brome, one-quarter pound of spreading alfalfa, 13 pounds of sainfoin and three pounds Birdsfoot trefoil per acre.
Forage kochia is highly nutritious to cattle and is most commonly used for standing fall and winter forage as an alternative to harvested hay. It can choke out invasive species, such as cheatgrass.
“Producers need to be aware of the extremely small seed, its like tobacco,” Hybner said. “The best way to plant it is to drop it on the snow in late spring and let the moisture to take it in. It is a perennial shrub, fire resistant and is for dryland pasture.
“It looks like Russian thistle without the prickles,” he added. “Its winter protein content runs from eight to 14 percent and takes three years to fully establish itself. I would recommend producers use it strictly for winter pasture, as you wouldn’t want it everywhere on the ranch.”
Diversity in cover crops and seed mixes is integral for soil health.
“The reason we have so many weeds in our fields is because we’re planting monoculture,” Hybner said. “The soil wants to have a buffet instead of a single course. Native range has a variety of grasses and forbes. The monocultures and tillage cause the soil ratios to be off-balance.”
“Land owners can correct this over time by planting diverse crops. To invigorate an alfalfa stand drill a cover crop right into the alfalfa, creating another year or so of production,” Hybner commented. “This reinvigorates all the soil organisms that have been sitting dormant. Applying fertilizer is just a Band-Aid, it doesn’t address the soil health issue.”