Putting down a pasture (Part 2): plus the farm scale rant!

Actually seeding a pasture can be a daunting task, especially for the uninitiated. And I’ve met more failure than success in this endeavor. Unlike guides on what species to select, there are not many guides on how to actually seed the stuff, and even fewer on how to seed without using large, modern equipment.

This is enormously frustrating, and I constantly run into this in agriculture generally: most new publications by the Land Grant universities assume the use of modern, expensive equipment. This is really a big part of the problem, because large, expensive equipment requires large pieces of land for the farmer to re-coup the investment. A 16’ wide modern no-till drill costs tens of thousands of dollars, and a good sized tractor is needed to pull it, and really, unless you a planting hundreds of acres of hayfield or pasture, such a thing will never “pay for itself.” It is basically a no-go for what the late Gene Logsdon called a “garden farmer,” which is what I am, and I predict is going to be the mode of the future. Now, communal ownership and borrowing of such large equipment can provide a solution, but you still need a tractor to pull it. Even a mid-sized tractor for such equipment is too large for a garden farmer, sometimes.

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An example of a small, post-war gasoline tractor. This is my 1955 John Deere 40U. It does, however, have the two most important features you should look for in a small tractor: a hydraulic 3-point hitch and 540 RPM PTO.

It is a simply a fact that the population is increasing and large tracts of agricultural land are being chopped up. Once broken into smaller tracts, and various people buy them, it is nearly impossible and certainly very unlikely that they will ever be reconsolidated (save a major war or “zombie apocalypse” scenario). And so the market for giant agricultural equipment, which is indeed efficient (because of economy of scale), will be smaller and smaller as time goes on. Yet, the manufactures aren’t really getting this, and neither are the land grand universities. They keep on working for the “big guy” farmer with thousands of acres under his control who becomes rarer every day, and not the 5-40 acre “garden farmer” of the future—people like me that buy smaller tracts of broken up farms on the peripheries of major population centers. I live in an old, brick farmhouse that once sat on a 160 acre homesteader tract opened up by the Greenville Treaty to white settlement in 1795, but today only 11 of those 160 remain with the homestead. The garden farmer does not have the advantage of the latest in equipment design, therefore. The garden farmer does, however, have other advantages that make up for this if he or she is clever.

Years ago, about 100 years ago in fact, while horses were still the means of power on farms, both fields and equipment were much smaller. If larger farms happened to be owned, much of the land was not worked—it was left in woods or native pasture. On a 100 acre farm, for example, it would be unusual if more than 10-25 of those acres were “worked” by a horse, and this is because horses are limited in horsepower (high school physics recap: power is a function of work and time). A 20-horse team, which are the largest teams of horses that are practical, have a fraction of the horsepower of an “old” post-WWII era large tractor, like a John Deere 70 or Farmall M. Sure, a big team exerts similar or greater traction, but they move at just one or two maybe three miles an hour. A post war tractor (which are small by today’s standards) operates at 2x or 3x that speed. There were only so many acres that could be hayed, or planted, or plowed in the given time frame (which is set by the weather and season) with horses. And the more horses you had, the more pasture and hay and grain you had to set aside for them. A 20-horse team could take up 60 acres of pasture/hay all by itself. You need to feed the horse all year, not just when you need it. The “iron horse” eats gasoline or diesel, which is purchase from off the farm, only when it’s worked, and a tractor doesn’t make manure. To the thinking of most farmers at the time of the transition, this was great because it meant they didn’t need to shovel manure or haul it around! One of the worse jobs was just reduced, now only production animal manure (cattle, pigs, etc.) needed to be dealt with. A manure-less iron horse was a miracle, and it wasn’t long before they realized that an iron horse doesn’t get tired and you can ride it all day and even all night (with headlights) if you wanted. Suddenly, the 15 acres or so in corn could be 100 and still get it done in time. And all that $$$ selling corn by the truckload. Of course, once every farmer figured this out, and everybody was growing 100 acres of corn, the price of corn went way down (glut). Still, I think the point has been made. Horses put practical limits on farm size and kept much of in pasture or woods, which don’t erode anywhere nearly as bad as does worked fields. Farms have been enlarging and eroding since the tractor. Soon, because of non-agriculture reasons (population density), farms will be getting smaller again, and the big stuff doesn’t work on small farms, because it is too expensive, and sometimes, can’t even make a tight enough turn, so the garden farmer needs to think like a horse farmer, even if he doesn’t have horses.

If you pasture is very small, lets say at most 2 or 3 acres, you can handle seeding with a hand-held broadcast seeder, like my Earthway. It takes about an hour to seed an acre stomping around this way, and there is a skill to it, and that comes in time. I thought that when I wrote this, I’d be able to give instructions on how to use things like these seeders well, but I cannot. It’s sort of like changing a diaper. Everybody gets the basic principles, but you need to do it a bit before you will do it well. Many people are going to have more land that needs seeding than this, anyway, and that is where tractor or ATV mounted broadcast seeders come in.

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My neighbor has a little 3-wheeled ATV with a Herd brand spin-type broadcast seeder (that works off the 12V battery) that can be used to do fields in the 3-50 acre size. I don’t like these because they are very imprecise. They lack a differential, and make very wide turns despite being small. They also have no precise speed control. They are, however, somewhat fun. Teenage boys, in particular, I would think would be motivated by this fact. I think tractor mounted spin-type broadcast seeder is better, even though they are less fun. I have a much larger Herd brand one I bought used on Craislist for less than the cost of a 50 lb bag of hayseed. Mine is large enough it could be used to broadcast granular soil amendments (like pelletized gypsum and granubor) as well. Even the smallest tractors have differentials and make tight turns. They also have a PTO, which is a convenient supply of power for the implement compared to wires that fall off, etc. And most importantly, tractors work at a steady speed for whatever gear they are in, so it is possible to get a reasonably consistent amount of seed out there per acre.

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The way a Land Grant university does it is this: they put out white tarps on the ground and drive over with the broadcast spreader and then count the number of seeds per square foot. They get very good data this way, but of course, they have a legion of students that eagerly count seeds on tarps for free, and they have white tarps they can afford to clean every test. Most farmers, and especially thrifty garden farmers, do not. Our way to do this is when there is a nice even snowfall. Go over a bit of land, make sure to precisely note the position of the broadcaster feed gate, the gear/RPM of tractor, etc. Then you can use this information later. For expensive seeds, like Alfalfa, this can be well worth the trouble. For cheaper seeds my preference is to “eyeball it.” I like to use coated seed, which is a good idea for legumes anyway as it contains the proper symbiotic rhizobium bacteria, and usually these coatings are dyed in bright colors (red for Red Clover usually, white for White Clover, and yellow for Sweetclover or Birdsfoot Trefoil, though I’ve seen blue used for Trefoil and Alfalfa). You can go over a bit of land that is bare and count the seeds this way. Or you can just go ahead and if you have an idea of how big and acre is (use DraftLogic’s aerial mapping tool), you can reckon that vs. how many seeds you are going through (you will need a scale and a volumetric measuring cup for this, I like to do it in quarts). You can convert # of seeds per pound (listed on bag or on land grant university websites) to quarts or whatever this way; just make sure you keep track of everything because memories are faulty!

Now, a note about soil prep. If you are putting this into a pasture that is thin or you want to renovate, but don’t want to destroy, there are not many soil prep options, but there are some strategies. I’ve found that lightly harrowing a field doesn’t do much damage to it, even if it looks like it does. Cultipackers do no damage as far as I can tell, and at least have some chance of pressing a seed down or knocking it out of vegetation it’s caught in so good soil-seed contact is achieved. But I’ve found that frost seeding is a more useful strategy, thought it can be hit or miss. In the late winter or early spring usually, when daytime temps go above freezing and there is sunlight, while at nighttime it dips below freezing, the thin skin of the ground is actually quite unstable. Little fissures and cracks form, then close, then form again. If you seed at this time, there is a good chance that seeds can get worked into those little cracks and achieve good soil-seed contact. I’ve found the single most important factor for success with frost seeding has to do with the species you are seeding (the shape of the seed and the seedling vigor seem to be the most important variables). Red, followed closely by White (including Ladino) and Alsike clovers the best. They happen to be the three true clovers. Sweetclover is not a true clover, it is more closely related to Alfalfa, and it doesn’t frost seed as well, thought it does frost seed better than Alfalfa. Among grasses, Orchardgrass, followed by Ryegrass and Fescue, and Timothy frost seed pretty well, though worse than the legumes. Bluegrass doesn’t frost seed well, mostly because it has poor seedling vigor. It is, after all, a sod-former, and its reproductive strategy involves spreading by roots, unlike the bunch-grasses (Orchardgrass, Ryegrass, Fescue, Timothy) that only rely on their seeds. I’ve found that sod-formers seed worse in general. Bromegrass and Reed Canarygrass are hard to get going weather you are frost seeding or not. Some forage brassicas, while most you would not want to frost seed (it is too early in the year) do broadcast seed very well, even better than many legumes. These are all annuals, so unless you want to do what I do with Daikon radishes, they would seem to be of limited use.

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This strange implement is a cultipacker. The idea of a cultipacker is to crush up any clods of soil and to press any seeds into the soil to achieve good soil-seed contact. The cultipacker was considered an agricultural breakthrough when it was invented around WWI. It has long since been eclipsed by modern seed drills and Brillion seeders (which actually work just like a cultipacker). Because they are old and obsolete they are often very cheap.

Now, if you can do more intensive soil prep, like some light or even heavy tillage, then you can pretty much do whatever you want. I have found that annual grains do not do well without tillage, and are very important plants. Nothing stays green and palatable through the winter like Rye or winter Wheat, and both make better late winter grazing than stockpiled fescue (I think). Rye surface-seeds the best, followed by Oats, but all are unsatisfactory without tillage I think. Sometimes all it takes is rototilling or harrowing, then broadcast, then cultipack. I’ve gotten stands as handsome and uniform as my neighbor with modern no-till drills this way. I also happen to think that shallow tillage in the fall followed by a fibrous rooted crop (like annual grasses) experiences little in the way of erosion. It is certainly far better than a fallow field that was corn or beans, which is the standard practice in most places.

In general, the bigger the seed, the deeper it should be planted. For small seeds (perennial grasses and legumes, brassicas) simply being pressed into the surface at the right time of year seems best. For larger seeds, ones which man has made to be much larger than their wild relatives, like those of the annual grains, some depth is ideal. I’ve found that in my heavy soil that a nice light, shallow, and fluffy tillage (acheived in that sweet spot in moisture level in the spring and fall) followed by broadcast and rolled with a cultipacker gets the annual grains down about a quarter inch. I’ve read on lighter land that you should cultipack after tillage, then broadcast, and then cultipack again. So obviously, you’re going to have to figure out for yourself.

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2 Responses to Putting down a pasture (Part 2): plus the farm scale rant!

  1. Pingback: Another way to start a pasture | A Contrarian's Guide to Grass and Guns

  2. Pingback: An Ode to White Clover | A Contrarian's Guide to Grass and Guns

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