If your pastures are showing signs of wear and tear, patches of open ground, more weeds than grass, overgrazing last fall or mud damage this winter, it’s time to rehab them with frost seeding. Frost seeding is an inexpensive and easy way to rejuvenate overgrazed or weather-damaged livestock pastures and hayfields without tilling or disturbing already established grasses and legumes.
As the soil freezes and thaws, the seeds are “drilled” into the ground—nature’s way of no-till seeding. All you need is winter days with daytime temperatures above freezing and night time temperatures below freezing. You also need seed, of course, and a means to broadcast it.
Small pastures of less than 5 acres can be seeded with a hand cranked seeder. The seeders broadcast the seed in 6- to 12-foot widths depending on the seeder and the seed.
Hand cranked broadcast seeders come in several sizes. You can use an inexpensive shoulder-strapped bag or a bigger backpack type with capacity of 25 to 60 pounds of seed. It’s a perfect method for keeping small pastures and paddocks in tip-top shape to nourish your valuable livestock.
If your pastures are more than 5 acres, you may want to invest in a broadcast seeder that can attach to an ATV or tractor.
Most pastures are seeded with cool-season grasses (such as fescue, rye, orchard grass and timothy) and legumes (such as clovers and alfalfa). Grasses supply carbohydrates and some proteins for all types of grazing livestock. Legumes provide higher quality protein.
Pastures that double as hay fields are good candidates for frost seeding legumes.
Legumes are the most successful seed for frost seeding, with medium Red Clover leading the pack. Other clovers such as White Clover and Ladino Clover are also good choices but can be less hardy than Red Clover. Red Clover, however, is not a long-standing perennial legume. Re-seeding Red Clover every three or four years will ensure your pastures always include a quality legume.
If you determine you need to seed both grasses and legumes, seed them separately. Grass seed is smaller and doesn’t broadcast as far as the larger legume seeds, giving uneven results if mixed together.
Cost of Seed
Seed of all kinds is expensive. You may be tempted to use less than the recommended amount of seed per acre because you are frost seeding over existing pasture. Studies show that frost seeding the recommended amounts for prepared seed beds yields better stand densities when frost seeding existing pastures.
This is particularly important for legumes. Keep in mind your cost of seeding is minimal—your time and an inexpensive broadcast seeder—which should overcome your reluctance to spread recommended pounds per acre.
Grazing after Frost Seeding
Successfully establishing legumes with frost seeding requires control of grass and weed competition. Frost seeded pastures can actually benefit from grazing. A light grazing opens up the ground to the sun and helps keep weed competition from stifling the newly germinated seedlings’ growth.
An ideal grazing program would start with goats and end with cattle, but light grazing of any livestock is beneficial. Mowing will also help establish the new stand.
The Right Pasture for Your Animals
If you are raising cattle or horses, they will love pastures with an even mix of grasses and legumes. Pastured chickens will also benefit from legume-rich pastures.
Sheep and hogs like clover pastures but can experience bloat from pastures too heavy with alfalfa. Goats prefer grasses over legumes.
Camelids such as alpacas and llamas need a grass pasture. They are not true ruminants and legumes can cause digestive problems. You can purchase pasture mixes designed specifically for camelids.