cows in field

Thinking About Frost Seeding?

A little hoof action is a good thing.

By Dr. Darrell L. Emmick

Added March 9, 2011. Well, ya shoulda thought about it last fall! Why you ask? Because the secret to a successful frost seeding is in the planning. And there are a number of steps that you should have thought about and taken 6 months to over a year ago that would help ensure your frost seeding is successful.

The first thing you should have thought about was your system of grazing management. If uncontrolled grazing destroyed your pasture's productivity in the first place, and low pasture productivity is the reason you are considering doing a frost seeding, I suggest you think again. If you are not using some form of controlled grazing, where you control the frequency, intensity, timing, and duration of the grazing events so that whatever plants you have growing in your pasture can thrive, then it is not likely they will. This includes any new plants you are attempting to establish through frost seeding.

Without first having a means of controlling the negative influences of your grazing animals, doing any seeding is just a waste of your time and money. I suggest you put your seed money toward buying fence first. A well-designed grazing system does not cost, it pays.

The second thing you should have thought about is soil fertility. If your soil is not providing the plant nutrients needed to maintain your existing pasture in a high yielding state, it is not likely it will support your new seeding either. As with all seedings, you should first get a soil test and correct any deficiencies. And again, this should be done long before you part with your hard earned money on buying seed. For example, lime is a very slow acting soil amendment, more akin to "snail mail" than to an "overnight express." Thus if low soil pH is an issue, I recommend getting your lime spread 6 months to a year prior to seeding. For surface applications, I don't recommend spreading more than two tons of lime/ac/yr.

In many cases, simply improving your grazing management and correcting soil fertility deficiencies will be all that is required to improve your forage yields. That having been said however, some pastures will still benefit by the addition of seed to enhance production, even out seasonality of growth, or improve forage quality.

Keep in mind, frost seeding only works if the seeds you broadcast actually reach the soil surface where they can germinate and send roots into the soil. Any seed that lands on last year's dead vegetation or thatch is doomed. The seeds may germinate, but because the roots can't reach the soil, they just dry up and die like a nightcrawler that, after a night of unabashed romping around in the grass on a warm spring night, finds itself over-extended on a hot dry sidewalk or driveway baking in the sun. (In case you are wondering why this happens to so many otherwise intelligent worms, you just need to keep in mind a nightcrawler is a hermaphrodite, i.e. each worm is both male and female. Thus you have one end that won't ask for directions and the other end can't read a map.)

Too much hoof action is not a good thing.

To ensure your seeds have opportunity to reach the soil surface, you will want to graze your pasture extremely hard in the fall previous to the spring in which you want to seed. By grazing your pasture close or tightly, you are removing green vegetation before it becomes a dead vegetation problem in the spring, and by removing the leaves you are opening up a pathway for the seeds to reach the soil surface. Remember, no seed to soil contact, picture the nightcrawler.

In order to obtain the best results with frost seeding, it is best to broadcast the seed earlier rather than later. Frost seeding, as the name implies, relies on freezing and thawing temperatures to open up cracks in the soil and then close them back up burying the seed. If one waits too long in the spring to spread the seed, the chances of this happening are slim to none.

I should tell you, I am not a strong advocate of frost seeding. In the past 30 years of walking around in pastures, I have seen very little frost heaving. Some, yes, but more in hay fields on heavy clay soils. No frost heaving, no frost seeding. It is a hit or miss proposition at the best. While some have better luck with frost seeding than others, and some years are better than others, generally it takes more than one try to see a noticeable improvement in your pasture. The good news is, the seeding cost is so low most can afford to spin some seed on each year until the stand improves.

A better low cost seeding strategy is to use the "plop and stomp method" and let your livestock tramp the seed in the ground. No frost required.

As with frost seeding, make sure your grazing management is up to snuff and be sure to soil test and apply what is needed. Graze you pasture hard in the fall prior to the spring in which you want to seed. You may also have to graze the pasture in the spring of the year you wish to seed in order to eliminate competition. I recommend you wait until the frost is out of the ground, and broadcast your seed on a warm spring day. The soil should be soft and damp but not muddy. Once the seed has been broadcast, use temporary wire to herd your livestock on to small sections of the pasture at a time. Hoof action, rather than frost action, does all of the work. Caution! Do not churn the soil into a muddy mess. You will likely do more harm than good. A light stomping is a good thing, but keep in mind when we conventionally seed pastures, we are generally looking to place seeds in the soil less than one-half of an inch deep.

Getting the competition out of the way is key to getting seeds to land
on soil where they can germinate and attach.

So what should you seed? As most livestock prefer legumes over grass by a 70:30 margin, and animal performance is higher on legumes than on grass, if I were you, I would be seeding my favorite legumes. The grass is up to you. However, the ryegrasses, especially Italian and annual varieties, establish the fastest. They just don't persist very long. I am also a strong advocate for plant diversity. Seeding several grasses and legumes is better than just spinning on a single species.

Seeding rates are a bit tricky. Some have found success with using less seed per acre than what would be recommended for a conventional seeding, but plan to spin on seed several years in a row. Other folks take the view that because frost seeding is a less sure method of seeding, they spin on more seed than what would be recommended for a conventional seeding. Which strategy you choose is up to you. People have found success doing it either way.

Naturally, you will want give the new plants a chance to establish before you graze them. If you can grab a handful of 6 to 8 inch tall new plants and give them a hard tug and they come out of the ground roots and all, so can your livestock. Thus, do not graze them. When the new plants stay rooted and all you get is a handful of leaves, it is generally safe to graze the new seeding.

Keep in mind, frost seedings and stomp and plop seedings are not as effective as more conventional seedings, but they are cheap, and you can do them many times for the cost of a conventional seeding. They can and do work, just remember you need to have your planning and preparation work done 6 months to a year ahead of time, and when the plants begin to grow, protect them from your grazing animals until they are well-established.

Dr. Darrell L. Emmick is a Grazing Land Management Consultant and can be reached at the following address, phone and Email: 57 Michigan Hill Rd., Richford, NY 13835, Telephone - 607-844-3211, Email -