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8 Steps to establishing native grasses in your pasture

The biggest step in success is identifying the species of grass that does well in your soil type.

May 8, 2024

3 Min Read
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By Mike Trammell, Oklahoma State University

Establishing a native grass pasture can be an intimidating process. The pros relative to native perennial pasture grasses are noteworthy – low demand for fertilizer after establishment, drought hardiness if properly grazed, diversity, and increased wildlife habitat, to list a few.

On the other hand, after the cons are considered - low germination and seedling survival rate, low seedling vigor, low tolerance to competition, and general unpredictability of stand success (not to mention lower stocking rates) - few producers decide to attempt a native grass planting. However, successful establishment can occur through attention to detail during the establishment process.

The following are key steps to guide producers who want to establish a new stand of native grass.

Identify the species of native grasses found on good condition native range sites of your soil type. The quickest means to find this information is on the Web Soil Survey . This entails locating your property or area of interest (AOI) on the interactive map and finding the plant community like your ecological site description or the desired plant community. The listed native grasses include both high and lower successional grasses. Most of these grasses should be included in the seed mixture.

  1. Soil test! If soils are deficient in phosphorus or potassium, or have a low pH, these deficiencies will need to be corrected prior to planting.

  2. Eliminate competition prior to planting. Native grass seedlings are not tolerant of competition. Difficult to control species such as bermudagrass, johnsongrass, crabgrass and annual ryegrass may require several tillage operations or herbicide treatments during the growing season to reduce seedling competition.

  3. Prepare a smooth, firm, weed free seedbed. The soil should be worked to a depth of 3 to 5 inches until it is free of clods. The use of a drag or harrow behind the last tillage improves the smoothness and uniformity of the field. Follow with a packer or other packing implement to firm the seedbed.

  4. Purchase a seed mixture similar to the plants listed in the Web Soil Survey ecological site of the targeted planting area. Include the mid-successional species in equal proportion to the high successional species. The mid-successional species will often emerge earlier and in greater frequency during the first growing season. Plant the mixture at a seeding rate of about 10 pounds per acre or more of pure live seed (PLS). Always purchase your seed from a reputable seed dealer. There are several regional seed sources for native grass seeds.

  5. In Oklahoma, native warm season grasses should be seeded between March 15 and May 15 to capitalize on favorable moisture patterns. Some successful seedings have been obtained after June 1, but the chances for success decrease rapidly after that date.

  6. Native cool-season grasses (wheatgrasses) should be planted in September or October. Use a calibrated seeder designed to handle native grass seeds. Air-flow seeders, Brillion seeders and other seeders with agitators running through a seed box designed to manage "fluffy" seeds work well. Calibrate the drill to ensure a proper seeding rate. Seed should be planted at a depth of about 1/4 inch.

  7. Control weed competition throughout the growing season. Most native grasses will not germinate until soil temperatures reach 60 F. Broadleaf weeds emerge soon thereafter. If the grassy weeds have been eliminated, broadleaf weeds will be the main competition. Manage weeds by mowing or treatment with an appropriate herbicide when weeds reach about 2-4 inches in height or before they begin to shade emerging grasses.

  8. Avoid grazing new stands during the establishment year or lightly (top) graze only after plants are well established. A full growing season of grazing or haying deferment will allow new plants to develop a good root system. Always leave adequate residual height during grazing events even in subsequent years, and remember, ‘take half, leave half’ is a good rule to follow when grazing native grasses.

Source: Oklahoma State University

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