Converting Cropland to Pastureland

cattle grazing cool-season grasses
Figure 1. With grain prices down and input costs up, converting cropland to pastureland could create a profit opportunity for 2017. A successful and cost-effective conversion starts with careful planning. (Photo by Jerry Volesky)

Converting Cropland to Pastureland March 16, 2017

At a time when crop production costs remain high as crop prices decline and cattle compete for scarce pastures, converting cropland to pasture might make sense. If you’re considering this change, take time to plan and do it right.

Species Selection

Selecting the most suitable forage to replant is critical for the overall success of the forage/livestock operation. The best forage usually depends on the type of livestock operation and the other forages available to support that operation.

Many livestock operations have abundant spring pasture from cool-season grasses like smooth bromegrass, orchardgrass, and wheatgrasses. However, in July and August these pastures are low quality and grow slowly. More cool-season grass would do little to overcome this summer slump. Instead, plant warm-season grasses like big bluestem and indiangrass to provide a higher-quality forage later in the growing season and complement cool-season grass pastures. Likewise, if warm-season native range grasses dominate existing pastures, plant cool-season grasses for new pasture. Recommended varieties are listed in the Nebraska Extension publication, Certified Perennial Grass Varieties Recommended for Nebraska (EC120).

To improve animal performance and reduce nitrogen fertilizer needs, add legumes like clovers, trefoil, and alfalfa to the grass mixture.

Do not overlook annual forages. They provide flexibility for the farming/livestock operation since something different can be planted as forage needs change or crop prices become more attractive. Summer annuals like sorghum-sudangrass or pearl millet can provide abundant summer grazing. See the NebGuide Summer Annual Forage Grasses (G1823) for recommendations.

Cereal rye is an excellent source of forage for very early spring grazing. Winter wheat can also be used for grazing or it may be planted for forage and harvested later for grain if it is not needed when spring grazing time arrives. Oats and brassicas make excellent fall and early winter forage. For information on several options see the NebGuide, Utilizing Annual Forages with Limited Irrigation for Beef Cattle During and Following Drought.

Planting Guidelines

Most forage plantings fail due to inadequate preparation. Hasty decision-making often results in poor soil conditions that result in less than desirable establishment. If possible, prepare land for forage planting while still in annual row crop production. For example, apply and incorporate lime as needed prior to planting the final year of row crops or immediately following grain harvest. This gives the lime adequate time to neutralize undesired soil acidity.

Seed Bed Preparation

A major cause of establishment failure is poor seedbed preparation. Firm seedbeds are essential for good seed-to-soil contact at planting. Tillage just prior to planting often results in seedbeds that either are too loose or have compaction zones that restrict root development of young forage seedlings.

Following Soybean

Often, soybean is the best row crop to grow the year before seeding forages. Undisturbed soybean stubble nearly always provides an excellent seedbed. If weeds have been well controlled, no-till planting of forages directly into the soybean stubble usually results in excellent seed placement and minimal soil disturbance, which discourages new weed growth.

Following Corn

Seeding into heavy corn residue can be difficult. Remove some residue by grazing or baling the corn stalks. Tillage to smooth the field and reduce some of the residue also may be useful.

Following Wheat

Stubble from small grains like wheat or oats also makes a fine seedbed. The untilled ground creates a well-packed soil base into which to drill. However, removing straw that might smother new seedlings or cause problems with effective drill operation will increase chances of success. Volunteer small grain seedlings or other weeds can pose a competition threat to perennial grass seedling establishment. Delay planting until at least 30 days post-harvest and control volunteer growth and weeds prior to planting to ensure seedlings can establish with limited competition.

Final Guidelines

Plant cool-season, perennial pastures shortly before corn planting or in late summer at least six weeks before the first hard freeze is expected. Plant warm-season grasses when you would normally plant corn.

Perennial pasture forages have small seeds so use a drill to place the seed ¼-to ½-inch deep into a well-packed seedbed at recommended rates. Use high quality seeds of varieties known to be adapted to your area.

The most frequent cause of seeding failure and slow establishment of perennial forages is poor weed control. Planting date, strategic mowing, and selective herbicide use can help reduce weed pressure.

Additional Resource

For more recommendations on successfully seeding forage grasses, see Establishing Dryland Forage Grasses (G1705).