I accidentally stumbled upon a way to start a pasture, which might just be the most effective way yet. By effective I mean cheap and low effort with a good outcome.
Oftentimes people evaluate a farming endeavor merely based on the outcome. This is how we get ridiculous show animals that have resources poured into them, basically only to win shows. Such activities are not economic, and they don’t impress me a bit. Sometimes a few weeds in a hayfield or a pasture are rather benign. The desire for the look of “perfection” is what drives the attitude of kill and drill. Either moldboard plow or herbicide whatever field it is you want to bring into a hayfield or pasture, apply prescribed fertilizers, and then drill in the desired plants. No doubt this can achieve a fine looking hayfield or pasture. But there are other ways, which not only involve less effort and expense, but also are more environmentally benign, and sometimes have an even better outcome if by better you consider overall nutrition for animals and not merely appearance.
There are broadly two paths to take when it comes to establishing a pasture. There is kill and drill and there is the broad concept of renovation. I’ve already described all you really need to know about drill and kill. The specifics for your location can be found in any extension service bulletin for your area. Renovation is a far more complicated topic, and can range from involved renovation efforts to basically doing nothing except rotationally grazing livestock (which alone can gradually improve a pasture).
Earlier I described the involved renovation process by which I brought an old continuous cornfield into developing pasture with many bumps and failures along the way. I think I may have just serendipitously discovered a less involved renovation process that is more broadly applicable and more effective, and I have never read about in any manual.
Here’s what happened. Two springs ago I made the foolish decision to plant some squashes in a mucky wet area in a corner of one of my fields. They really didn’t grow well, and I pretty much lost interest in the small 1/8th acre plot, and basically let it all go to weeds. Then last spring I decided I wanted to make it into a decent garden place, and I knew it was mucky and probably nitrogen deficient, so I planted VNS Sweetclover pretty heavily. This Biannual Yellow Blossom Sweetclover came from Kansas, and it is not very winter hardy apparently. It grew quite well in the place, which is normal for Sweetclover on high pH soil like mine. Sweetclover is very tolerant of poor soil texture. In fact, its roots just seem to shoot right through clay and hardpan. It definitely improved surface drainage in this area, though it still lays a bit wetter than it should.
We had a few very low temps this winter despite it being overall relatively mild. It measured down to -10 degrees F at least one night. This seems to have killed almost all of Sweetclover. I was pretty bummed expecting a nice heavy crop of top growth this spring to mow and make into mulch or compost (Sweetclover should not be made into hay), so I did nothing about it. Lately I have been watching it though because it has become apparent that many Kentucky Bluegrass plants seem to have sprung up, and not many weeds or weed grasses. How odd. I never seeded this area to any grass, only to Sweetclover the year before. Today I went out and it has become apparent that it is looking like I planted it. Mind you, it’s only late March, and around here pastures haven’t even begun to pick up yet. This is some good-looking grass. And the drainage is better. And no doubt the decaying Sweetclover contributed a good shot of nitrogen. I wonder how well it could be doing if I had overseeded in late summer last year with a pasture mix, or frost seeded the same mix this February.
So, now I have another way to recommend how renovate a pasture, because Sweetclover can be frost seeded well right into an existing pasture, or can be broadcast straight into an old bean or corn field. If the sod is pretty thick with non-desirable grass and weeds in the spring, one could get out there with a disc or a rototiller and make a mess of it and then broadcast the Sweetclover. Then cultipack. The great thing about it is Sweetclover will provide some good grazing in the summer (it can cause bloat), and if grazing isn’t desired, then just mow it. Mow it down good and low in the fall or late summer and overseed with your desired pasture mix (I recommend low growing improved White Clover, Ryegrass both perennial and Italian, and Kentucky Bluegrass). Let the winter kill your Sweetclover (make sure to pick a variety that probably wont make it through the winter in your area) and sit back and watch your pasture grow with the benefits of nitrogen, improved drainage, and reduced soil compaction. If some Sweetclover survives, it wont hurt anything (especially in a pasture), as it will eventually succumb to close grazing and mowing compared to the low growing pasture plants. Biannual Sweetclover only lives one year, so if you don’t let it go to seed, it will be gone from the field by the next year. And Sweetclover is cheap and broadcasts well.