Frost seeding for pasture renovation

By Jordan Penrose, Ohio State University Extension Educator, Gallia County

At the start of 2023 in southeastern Ohio, we have faced muddy conditions. One of the areas that have taken the biggest hit is the pastures the livestock are staying on. I guess that some of you are trying to find the best ways to limit the damage to your pastures. We are facing the same thing on my family’s farm. If you do not have a heavy-use pad to keep livestock on during times when the mud is bad, the pastures are going to take a hit from the conditions that we have had this year. While we are taking what mother nature is giving us day by day, now is the time to start thinking of ways to renovate pastures. A few questions to ask are, how well will your pastures come back if they have been through a rough winter? Is the cost and time that you are going to put into renovating worth the return that you will get back out of it?

The overall cheapest option that you could do is to do nothing to your pasture. This is something we did for many years with one of our pastures where we kept our fall-calving cows and fed them hay daily during the winter months. Once we put the fall-calving and spring-calving cows back together at the end of March, we would skip that field for the first rotation or two for grazing. This field is also one of the last fields in the rotation as well. This field comes back very nicely and is one of our top-producing pasture fields. We do notice a difference in weed pressure when we skip that first grazing rotation on that field as compared to when we do not skip it.

Another option is frost seeding which could be something to try before making the big decision of a “traditional” reseeding of an entire pasture. Frost seeding is also a cheaper option and less time-consuming as compared to the latter. Frost seeding is the process of spreading seed on an already-established pasture or hayfield while the ground is still frozen. With frost seeding, there is a limited time that it can be done, and the recommended time is between early February to mid-March. The constant freezing and thawing of the ground during this time is what helps frost seeding succeed. The seed will work its way to a shallow coverage to protect the seed through constant freezing and thawing.

The key to succeeding with frost seeding is being able to see bare ground when you spread the seed so there can be good seed-to-soil contact. This will give you the best chance of germination. If you have a heavier sod, then you may want to gaze it down first before you try seeding. During the recommended time of the year to frost seed, there is always a good chance that there could be snow on the ground. If that is the case it is recommended that you wait to seed, because when the snow melts it could carry the seed away.

When it comes to choosing a seed mixture to use for frost seeding, legumes work better as compared to grasses. Legume seeds tend to be a little heavier in weight as compared to grass seed and may help get down to the soil better than grass seed. There is an advantage to frost-seeding legumes because they “fix” nitrogen which is typically more than their own needs. The existing grass plants that are already established in the pasture can use that excess nitrogen and improve its quality as a forage. Once a pasture is about 25% to 30% legumes there is no need to apply supplemental nitrogen. You have found another way to reduce costs, as this portion of fertilizer is taken care of. The seeding recommendations are anywhere from 2 to 10 pounds per acre. If you are frost seeding every year, then you want to be more around that 2 to 3 pounds per acre range. If you are doing it more as a one-time thing, then you may want to go up to the 8 to 10 pounds per acre range.

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