This is the time of year to renovate or sow cool season grasses to thicken up our hay and pasture fields, as well as our cool season lawns. Cool season grasses that are most used locally include fescue, orchardgrass and bluegrass. However, I would not recommend the later for lawn, hay or pasture use, there are much better options available.
Typically I get a lot of phone calls in the spring, both early and late, about renovating pastures and hayfields, as well as just trying to thicken the stand up. Well now is the time to get next year’s stand improved.
You may be asking yourself what is the difference or is there a difference. Well there is. Renovating is a little more involved than just over-seeding to try to thicken a stand.
Over-seeding is basically just what the name sounds like it is. You go in with a whirlybird type seeder, either tractor mounted for large fields or hand operated for a lawn, and just broadcast seed over the top of whatever is currently growing in the field. Done, finished, go to the house and hope for the best.
Renovating is a little more involved and requires more, or different, machinery. This can be a field renovating machine designed just for this purpose. This piece of equipment is designed to place the seed in the ground instead of on it. And that can be a very important detail as far as having success in this endeavor.
And when renovating, you want to take the existing plant cover down as close to ground level as possible. This can be done in several ways. You can mow the vegetation down as low as you can right before seeding. You can let livestock graze it down very low. Or you can spray it with a total kill herbicide, then when it dies, mow it down close. Again, this gives the new seedlings a better chance at making it.
When seeds are simply broadcast, or over-seeded, or just thrown over the top of existing stands of plant material, it is a real challenge for those small seeds to just reach the soil. Many will never make it. They will land on the bigger vegetation or anything else that is there and not get to the ground. Some will be eaten by birds or insects, some may germinate on a leaf but with no soil to puts roots into, die as quickly as they lived.
If they are successful in reaching the ground, then the next challenge is germinating. Will the soil reach the right temperature on the surface in the shade of the larger plants and will enough moisture be available for them to use.
Then, if they successfully germinate, will they be able to grow fast and tall enough to reach sunlight and develop roots fast and deep enough to get water. Hopefully, if they get to this point, they can grow into a mature plant and be productive for several years.
However, a relatively small percentage makes it this far. Even if, say 50%, made it and survived, that is a pretty expensive half stand. If good certified seed cost, let say an even $2.00 a pound of seed to get a 50% stand. If you sow fescue seed at the rate of 15 lbs. per acre, then that would be $60 per acre for a half stand instead of $30 per acre for a full stand. Not very economical.
The better way to do it is to renovate. The best way is to use a pasture renovator (it works just fine for hay fields also). There is a shared use renovator available to rent in Boyd County if you do not have one. You must be trained in how to properly use it in order to rent it by yours truly. You can contact the Boyd County Conservation Office about the process and rate at 606.928.8027.
This machine will open a slit, put the seed directly into the ground at the correct depth (if you set the machine up correctly) and will then cover the seed and press the soil firm around it. Then all you need is for there to be a rain shower or enough moisture already in the soil. The chances are greatly improved that you will have a successful young stand in a few weeks.
Realize that when I said this is the time of year to do this, I am talking about seeding grass seed, not red clover or other legumes. The best time to seed them is in mid-late February through March. With them, you do want to broadcast instead of using the renovator. This is due to several factors, including the shape of the seed. Legume seeds are round and hard and dense will bounce around like a pin ball when they are broadcast. Grass seeds are more of an elliptical shape and light weight, and tend to twirl and flutter around in the air when they are broadcast, which also makes them more vulnerable to wind than legumes. Grass seeds tend to stay where they land but legume seeds, again, will bounce around.
This action allows many more legume seeds to make it to the ground. Plus the existing grass is usually much shorter in the winter which means less plant material for the seeds to land on.
This time of year is also best for re-seeding or renovating cool season grass lawns as well, mostly fescue. Again, if you just broadcast seeds, a lower percentage will germinate and grow. But instead of using a renovator, you can use what is called a vertical mower. This is a machine that has short blades on it that rotate into the ground making shallow cuts and breaking the ground and current vegetation up to expose soil for the seeds to land on. They can be rented at some hardware and equipment rental stores.
An important item to know is the rate that you want to put the seeds out. In a pasture or hay field situation, you will want to sow about 10-12 lbs. per acre if you are renovating it and there are legumes in the field also. If it is just a straight grass field, then increase that to 15-25 lbs. per acre of seed.
For a home yard you will seed, in order to thicken a stand, about 5 lbs. per 1,000 sq. ft., which is an area about 33 ft. X 33 ft. This is about half the amount you sow on an acre of hay ground, but for a different purpose and you want yard grass thick, thick, thick.
Few people seed clover into their lawns, as most consider it a weed in highly groomed lawns. I personally do not mind it as I view it as a free source of nitrogen to feed my fescue.
Keep in mind that these recommendations are for cool season grasses, not warm season like Bermuda or zoysia for the lawn. That is another whole different time frame.
If you have any questions about the above, give us a call at the Boyd County Extension Office at 606.739.5184.