Establishing a strong forage stand

group of alfalfa plants in field, purple flowers growing.

The days of broadcasting forage seed on a field and hoping for nature to cooperate are over. Growers should plan ahead to ensure successful forage stand establishment and ensure their desired results.

“The land growers dedicate to forages is worth the same as land dedicated to an annual crop base,” says Perry Ross, product line representative for forages with Nutrien Ag Solutions. “Expectations for forage and pasture land need to be set higher than in the past. Planning and preparation are equally important as with annual crops.”

Ross says in order to have a reasonably good stand in the first year there are a few key things that must be done to ensure a high quality, high yielding, forage stand.


The first step to producing premium feed is selecting the right forage variety for your region and desired end use. Growers should consider which attributes are most important including hardiness, yield, regrowth potential and drought tolerance.

“Will it be used for pasture, hay, or both? Customers need to prioritize their most important need and then Nutrien Ag Solutions can work with them to select the right variety based on performance and expectations.”

Soil type, topography and type of livestock are other key factors that can affect the species, variety or Proven® Seed Master Blend that is selected.


Preparing for a new forage stand should start the year before seeding. Herbicide use and potential residues should be monitored.

“Many herbicides have a residual effect on emerging forages and may minimize successful establishment,” says Ross. “Be sure the forage variety you select is not at risk from possible herbicide residue in the field.”

Keeping moisture in the seed zone can also be a challenge. “Like all annual crops, in dryer conditions the seedlings will simply die off once the soil dries out.”

There’s not much you can do to prevent moisture loss, Ross says, except plant a bit earlier and limit working the soil. A good seedbed helps create an environment to sustain seed zone moisture as the plant germinates.


A firm, well-prepared seedbed with proper weed control is critical for good soil-to-seed contact and strong emergence. Forages should be seeded no deeper than half to three-quarters of an inch deep into a firm seedbed. Ross says forages are very sensitive to poor seed placement and a common mistake is seeding into loose soil at a depth of an inch or more.

“Forage seeds are quite small. It takes a lot of energy for them to push through to the sunlight,” says Ross. “Until then, seeds have to live on stored energy.”

A seeding depth that is too shallow can likewise be an issue according to Ross, who notes that if the seeds aren’t adequately covered by the soil they will dry out quickly after germination and simply die off. Broadcast seed should be incorporated shallowly and packed accordingly.

“A general rule of thumb is to plant seeds to a maximum depth equivalent to 4-6 times the diameter of the seed.”


Forage crops establish better and generate consistently more productive stands if seeded without a cover or companion crop. Ross says having a companion crop is not a bad thing, but caution must be used in the amount of cover crop that is seeded. If a companion crop is used to offset erosion or for green feed or silage, Nutrien Ag Solutions recommends reducing the seeding rate by 50 per cent and removing the cover crop as soon as possible.

“Anything more than a bushel is really detrimental to the forage stand,” says Ross. “Too much cover crop creates a cool, humid micro-climate for the grasses or alfalfa underneath. When that’s suddenly removed, the forages aren’t used to so much sun exposure and will burn quickly.”

Another tip for managing companion crops is to avoid competitive cover crop species such as winter cereals and seed separately from the forages. Their target planting rates and depths are usually different.


Perennial weeds such as Canada thistle and quackgrass can out-compete forage stands and are best controlled prior to planting. “When going from an annual crop to a perennial forage crop, many growers have a tendency not to spray prior to seeding,” says Ross. “Then the forage stand may emerge with a significant number of weeds.”

Forage crops left in production for several years provide a favourable environment for perennial weeds to flourish and meanwhile, herbicide options are limited.


Start your forage stand establishment off right by selecting a top quality seed that is bred, tested and managed under a stringent quality assurance program, like the Proven Seed Performance Promise®.

“Even the best managers can’t control Mother Nature,” says Ross. “Choosing Proven Seed means your investment is protected by the industry’s leading guarantee – the Proven Seed Performance Promise. It’s a warranty that provides growers with the opportunity to replant failed forage plantings at half of the original invoiced seed cost.”

The unique line of forages from Proven Seed, available exclusively from Nutrien Ag Solutions in Western Canada, are stringently tested for fall dormancy, winter survival and regrowth potential under local conditions to help minimize risk.

“Proven Seed forages are the gold standard – good, classic varieties without fillers,” says Ross. “We only select varieties that perform consistently and survive longer. Growing Proven Seed means growing with confidence and success in establishing a productive forage stand.”

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