Converting Cropland Back to Grass Pastures

Converting Cropland Back to Grass Pastures

Decreased corn prices and increased cattle prices have stimulated interest in converting cropland back into grass pastures.​
By: Daren Redfearn, UNL Forage and Crop Residue Systems Specialist; Bruce Anderson, UNL Forage Specialist; and Jerry Volesky, UNL Range and Forage Specialist

Decreased corn prices and increased cattle prices have stimulated interest in converting cropland back into grass pastures. There are two NebGuides that provide details for establishing grass pastures. For additional details on establishing grass pastures, please see G1502, “Perennial Forages for Irrigated Pasture” and G1705 “Establishing Dryland Grasses”. Jerry Volesky, Extension Range and Forage Specialist, has a series of webinars addressing the management of irrigated cool-season, perennial grass pastures. These webinars can be viewed at this link.

There are a few key points to remember during the planning and planting process for both cool-season and warm-season perennials. First is seed selection. The best forage to replant usually depends on what other forages currently are available to support your operation. If you have abundant summer range, then planting a cool-season grass may provide you with more spring and fall pasture. Likewise, if you have plenty of pasture in the spring, maybe you could use a warm-season grass pasture for summer use.

Similarly, very few pastures have adequate legumes to improve animal performance and reduce nitrogen fertilizer needs. Since legumes can be difficult to add to existing grass pasture, it is better to add them to the seeding mix when establishing new pasture.

Annual forages should not be overlooked, either, as options for these acres. Summer annuals like sorghum-sudangrass or pearl millet can provide abundant summer grazing or hay. Winter rye is an excellent source of very early spring grazing. Winter wheat can be used similarly or may be harvested later for grain if it is not needed when spring grazing time arrives. Oats and brassicas make excellent fall and early winter pasture. The greatest advantage of annual forage may be flexibility for the farming/livestock operation. It is easy to plant something different the following year if forage needs change or row crop prices become more attractive.

When buying, cheap seed may not be a bargain. It is important to purchase the best quality seed that is available. 

A second point is seedbed preparation. It is critical to have a firm seedbed prior to planting. It is especially important to encourage good seed-to-soil contact. For either cool-season or warm-season perennial grasses, seeding into soybean stubble with a grassland drill will be reasonably simple. 

Seeding into corn stubble may require some additional work depending on the amount of remaining residue. The typical approach is to plow, disk, and roll to prepare a seedbed that is suitable for grass establishment. However, for no-till planting, shredding and baling the residue may be all this is necessary. If tillage is required, it is critical to pack the soil prior to planting.

Thirdly, pay special attention to seeding depth. A calibrated drill that will place the seed between ¼- to ½-inch into a well-packed seedbed is necessary. Lastly, early weed control is critical to the long-term success of perennial grass plantings. 

For cool-season grasses, fall planting is often preferred. However, a spring planting from March 1 to April 30 can be successful if summer annual weeds are controlled. For warm-season grasses, a planting date from April 1 to May 15 should result in the greatest chance of successful establishment. It is possible to have pastures of perennial grasses that can be grazed as soon as 12 months after spring seeding, with favorable precipitation and by following proper planting guidelines.

When new forage plantings are expected, their success can be affected greatly by prior cropping practices as well as the selection of what forage to plant. Planning and executing helpful preparatory steps will increase chances of successfully establishing a productive and profitable forage.

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