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How to Establish a Forage Stand

The establishment phase is the critical first step in a productive and healthy forage stand. To maximize your success in establishing a healthy productive stand, follow the agronomic guidelines below. 

Time of Seeding

Early spring (mid-April to early June), mid-summer (mid-July to early August) and late fall (after freeze-up) are suitable times for seeding your forage stand. Spring seeding provides the best chance for adequate moisture levels for germination. Summer seeding provides less weed competition but may not be successful in areas with inadequate summer moisture. Fall dormant seeding can run risks of early spring run-off or freeze thaw patterns harming seedlings. 

Seedbed Preparation

A firm seedbed is needed for good forage establishment. This results in proper seed to soil contact, adds control to seeding depth, as well as reducing surface drying. A firm seedbed should not leave a footprint deeper than ¼ inch. 

Weed Control

Weed control is important for good forage establishment. A seedbed free of perennial weeds is especially important. Control weeds prior to seeding, as well as during the year of establishment if possible. 

Quality Seed and Seed Treatments

Certified seed ensures varietal purity, high germination and weed-free seed. Certified seed results in rapid establishment and reduced weed problems in the future forage crop, as well as subsequent crops. Consider a forage coating to improve flowability and seedling health. All legumes should be inoculated to ensure nitrogen fixation.


Soil test and fertilize accordingly. Remember that the most cost-effective time to fertilize a forage crop is usually at seeding. Consider the use of higher rates of elemental sulfur or phosphorus to provide a stable nutrition base for the following years. Fifteen pounds of P₂O₅ can be safely seed placed. Higher rates must be banded away from the seed row to avoid seedling damage. 

Seeding Depth

Proper depth of seeding cannot be stressed enough. Many forage stand establishment failures are due to seeding too deep. All forage species should be seeded no deeper than ½ inch in depth. Most forage seeds will do well planted at about ¼ inch or less in depth. Always err on seeding too shallow rather than deep. 

Seeding Rates

Use the proper seeding rates based on target plants per square foot. Seeding rates depend on seed size, seed quality, seeding method, row spacing and annual precipitation. Because most forage seeds are small, light and often chaffy, it can be useful to mix the seed with cracked grain, cover crop seed, or fertilizer (except inoculated legumes) to improve seed flow. 

Companion Crops

Many growers choose to plant forages with a companion crop such as barley or oats to provide production in the establishment year. Companion or nurse crops compete with the new forage seedlings for sunlight, nutrients, and moisture. A companion crop can cause reduced seedling establishment and forage yield and reduce stand longevity. The benefits of using companion crops include reduction of wind and water erosion and reduction of weed infiltration. If using a companion crop, the following tips will reduce the competition and aid in forage stand establishment. 

Tips for Using Companion Crops

Tip #1 – Seed the companion crop at 1⁄3 to ½ of normal seeding rate.

Tip #2 – Seed forage seed in a separate pass at an angle to your companion crop to reduce competition and to aid in depth control.

Tip #3 – Increase forage seeding rate to achieve desired plant densities in the stand as the companion crop will reduce forage seed establishment.

Tip #4 – Remove the companion crop as early as possible (silage or green-feed) rather than harvesting the grain. This will reduce the amount of competition for sunlight, moisture, and nutrients.

Tip #5 – If harvesting the companion crop for grain (not recommended), remove all straw from the field. If that is not an option, chop and spread the straw thoroughly across the field. If straw is left in a windrow it will smother the forage seedlings underneath.

Tip #6 – If seeding forages where soil erosion is prominent, it is recommended that a companion crop be used. The companion crop will aid in covering and protecting the soil during the establishment year.