Cows Gone! What Now?

CANADA - When the last cow finally leaves the ranch, a lot of perennial forage remains. The reasons for herd reduction are varied, one of which is slumping feed margins mainly due to rising feed costs.
calendar icon 9 May 2008
clock icon 4 minute read
Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development

In relation to the current grain outlook, this may pose an opportunity to grow something different, if the proper machinery and resources are available.

“On the Canadian prairies, direct seeding of annual crops into unwanted pasture and hayland is an emerging trend,” says Ron Heller, extension agronomist with Alberta Reduced Tillage LINKAGES (RTL), Vermilion.

“Commonly referred to as sod seeding, this practice has achieved a high degree of success in different soils and crops. Technically feasible, the economics surpass traditional tillage-based removal methods, such as plough and disc, mainly due to an extreme savings in fuel, time and machinery.”

Sod seeding research done in Western Canada stipulates three conditions in order to maximize profit:

  • forage termination initiated in the year ahead of seeding, with herbicide
  • adequate forage and weed control achieved before seeding
  • subsequent in-crop strategies to control volunteer forage and weeds

“There is still more to discover about sod seeding and its fit in further diversifying crop rotations,” says Heller. “For example, some forgotten data from old research work indicates superior yields for peas. In two Alberta studies (Keng and Sprout, 1995-97), sod seeding peas into fall-applied glyphosate forage stands was consistently best when compared with spring-applied or tillage treatments of barley or canola. This advantage is likely due to large seed size of pea and low fertilizer-N needs - peas being a crop that fixes its own nitrogen.”

According to most trials Heller has seen, forage termination last August would have been the preferred strategy to start the important decomposition and moisture-saving benefits that make sod seeding work so well. “However, peas can be seeded earlier or later than just about any other crop,” he says, “provided the sod has been properly terminated and weeds have been controlled, especially perennials such as quackgrass and dandelions. If time and opportunity permit a grower to terminate perennial forage in the spring, peas’ short-maturity nature might benefit with such an approach.”

Planning and preparation for cropping a spring-terminated forage stand can be intense, but possible. A plus for peas into sod is that only simple single-shoot machinery is required if no fertilizer is used, except for perhaps some seed-placed starter amounts.

“Old sod tends to be nutrient deficient, so growers should have a soil test to determine if there are any nutrient deficiencies and that crop needs will be met. Finding clean seed and inoculants might be the biggest problem,” warns Heller. “There normally shouldn’t be any carry-over danger for peas in sod from herbicide residue, disease pathogens, or insect pests. Agronomically, peas fit better than canola or wheat, but there is always the question of growing season outcome if peas go in the ground too late, the risk for any crop, but certainly more so on spring-killed sod.”

Another common practice in peas is to roll the field before emergence. Rolling helps at harvest since peas often lay down when mature. This practice will certainly be important for seeding into freshly terminated sod this spring.

“The difference between well-rotted sod sprayed out the previous fall and a spring-time termination will be most evident in the way the seeding implements perform and field-finish,” adds Heller. “It is likely best to slow down and run as shallow as possible without stranding the seed in the thatch layer. It’s vital that seed is set and covered in moist soil. Some direct seeding systems achieve this better than others. Experience counts, although the best way to learn is to try, so maybe start with only a small field.”

Growers considering sod seeding for the first time may want to discuss it with someone who has done it. “RTL’s Farmer-to-Farmer direct seeding network is a great way for novice sod seeders to get some inside-training,” says Heller. “We can match someone to their circumstances, almost like a mentor. Based on experience, machinery and location, what works, what doesn’t and why can quickly be identified.”

Sod seeding of peas and even Round-Up Ready corn are two different, but good cropping options with rotation potential for direct seeders or the cattleman who wants to try something different.

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