b Seeding the Summer Pasture

Notes from Windward: #71


Seeding the sheep's summer pasture


      Over the summer I began preparing some of our forested pastures to receive grass and legume seed. I had the opportunity to attend a forest and rangeland owners field day in the late spring. I was able to run my plans by a rangeland management extension officer for WSU.

Successful germination and survival on some Wheatgrass experimental plantings I did last fall. This kind of stuff gives me hope.

      Seeding a pasture that is heavily forested, with the associated layer of leaf matter is significantly different than seeding an open pasture. Another challenge in the forest is that the use of seed drills attached to tractors is not an option due to the trees.

A view of a new pasture pen. The sheep have lived on this land almost continuously for years, killing all but the trees. Good news for me, because there is no competition for the new plants!

      Some things that I learned were that most native perennial grass seeds and alfalfa that I wish to establish in these forested pastures, need contact with bare mineral soil to germinate the best. Contact with the mineral soil allows for better moisture retention during the process of stratification and early growth.

      The method which I decided upon involves a few steps:

A pile of sticks that will capture leaf matter and build soil over time.

      first, I needed to thin out some of the trees and low hanging branches to allow for more light to reach the forest floor. I took these limbs and piled them in strips along the contour of the land. I did this because of observations I've made of how piles of sticks tend to accumulate fallen leaves, trapping them and building soil. Over time I anticipate these piles of sticks to become mounds, which will act as swales to slow surface runoff and to hold moisture in the woody material.

Nevada Birds-foot-trefoil. A hardy native legume incorporated into the pasture seeding.

      Second, I hand raked the leafy debris off the forest floor down to the mineral soil. I moved most of the material into the branch piles to start the process of creating mounds and swales. I left some of the more broken down material in piles that I will spread around later.

Some kind of perennial Brome bunch-grass with seed head reaching over 3-feet tall. The grass I've selected for summer pasture are all similar in that they tend to grow upwards, allowing for more plant material in a smaller space. And they mature in the summer, to be grazed in the late summer. Meaning higher production per unit area in a time of year when other forage is unavailable.

      Third, I used a rake to disturb the mineral soil so the seed has more of an opportunity to be buried in the soil. If I was using a seed drill, the seed would physically be pushed under the soil an inch or more. Because I am doing this all by hand, I felt it was added insurance to make sure the top inch or so of mineral soil was well disturbed in order to receive and shelter the seeds, and make good soil-to-seed contact.

Some kind of fescue grass growing in completely exposed area. Seed from such individuals we incorporated into a "no mans land" grass mixture, for areas of full sun exposure.

      Fourth, the seed was hand casted on the disturbed soil. In different areas of the pasture I used different seed mixtures to see what happens. Part of my thinking on this is that the more drought tolerant perennial grasses (the ones I see growing in completely exposed areas). In general the full sun seed mixture is composed of about 80% perennial wheat-grass (Agropyron ssp.) , wildrye (Elymus ssp) and fescue (primarily meadow fescue) seeds, and 20% non-irrigated dryland alfalfa (Medicago sativa)seed that is coated with the nitrogen fixing bacteria.

Seed head of some kind of wild rye. Not as productive as other grasses, but it obviously grows under full canopy cover.

      As I moved into a shady forested environment, I added higher percentages of alfalfa Idaho fescue (Festuca idahoensis) and Orchard grass (Dactylis spp) which I have had success in growing well in more highly shaded areas. In the most densely forested areas the mixture was completely Idaho fescue alfalfa and some orchard grass.

      In general I am aiming for around 5 lbs of seed per acre. The total area of fenced pasture I am looking to seed is about 3 acres. I have been hand-harvesting the seed from other location on our property and along the wayside of Wahkiacus Heights road. You can imagine the amount of work that went in harvesting 15+ pounds of seed.

      Fifth, the seeds were raked into the soil, and some broken down leafy debris was cast atop to help shelter the seeded soil for moisture loss.

      The Idaho fescue and Alfalfa should germinate with the fall rains. The rest of the perennial grasses need the stratify through a long period of cold, and should finish germinating when the soil warms up in the following spring.

      The pasture will need to grow out for at least one growing season (spring germination through to fall dormancy) at which time it can be lightly grazed. I plan to keep the sheep from grazing this pasture intensively for the next 2-3 years in order to give the grass optimal time to set down roots. This is because the pasture , being in the forest, will have less energy (sunlight) to capture and turn into plant material.

      With enough well directed effort early on, and proper grazing management, these pastures should be completely self sustaining. Not requiring any additional seeding or soil disturbance for a very long time. Well worth the effort. Now it is time to sit back and watch the grass grow.

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 71