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Seeding Part 1: Sow, You Want to Seed Your Rangeland or Irrigated Pasture

Seeding Part 1: Sow, You Want to Seed Your Rangeland or Irrigated Pasture
By Devii R. Rao
Over the past couple years, I have received many questions from ranchers and also from landowners with small (1 to 10-acre) parcels who want to seed their fields. They want to know what to seed, how to seed, and where to get seed. This article has information I have gathered over the past couple years to try to answer those questions and more. Stay tuned for Seeding Part 2: To Seed or Not to Seed. Part 2 will focus on whether seeding makes economic sense for your situation.
The most common reasons I hear that people want to seed are to
  1. Improve forage for livestock.
  2. Prevent erosion in high use areas or after a fire.
  3. Compete with weeds.
  4. Provide forage for wildlife, like deer, elk, and quail.
  5. Rehabilitate a dryland horse pasture that has been severely grazed for many years.
  6. Create or rehab an irrigated pasture for horses, cattle, sheep, or goats.
  7. Restore native plants.
This will depend on your goals, soils, precipitation, budget, and potential for irrigation, among other things.
Here are some ideas about what to seed, based on seven different goals:
  1. Improve forage for livestock
  • Usually a dryland pasture mix will be a good bet to get some seed in the ground at a reasonable cost. Locally, dryland pasture mixes typically contain grasses, such as annual ryegrass, orchard grass, and maybe a brome, fescue, oat or barley. They may also have legumes, like clovers, medics, and vetches to provide higher levels of protein. Locally available dryland pasture seed mixes will tend to do better at sites with more than 20 inches of rainfall (George, pers. comm.). It's good to have multiple legume varieties in your mix because different varieties are adapted to different soil conditions (George and Davy 2016). Also, different varieties will mature at different times throughout the growing season, which can extend the green forage season.

      2. Prevent erosion in high use areas or after a fire

  • The NRCS office in Santa Cruz County recommends rose clover, creeping red fescue, zorro annual fescue, & Blando brome for erosion prevention.
  • The Livestock & Land Program additionally recommends annual ryegrass, and crimson clover (Shanks and Moore 2001). They also recommend two native species: California poppy and arroyo lupine.

     3. Compete with weeds

  • Researchers in Tehama County found that annual ryegrass and soft brome were good short-term options to compete with medusahead and yellow starthistle (Davy et al. 2017). Average annual rainfall at the study sites is nearly 23 inches, although during the 5-year study period, rainfall ranged from 13 to 24 inches. The following perennials provided longer-term competition with the target weeds: Flecha tall fescue, hardinggrass (Perla koleagrass, Holdfast, Advanced AT) and Berber orchardgrass. Rainfall on many ranches on the Central Coast have lower rainfall than the Tehama County site, making establishment of perennial grasses more difficult.
  • It may be valuable to seed a plant that has a similar life strategy to the weed you are trying to control. The seeded species will therefore have similar water, soil, and light requirements as the weed making it more difficult for the weed to access those resources.
     4. Provide forage for wildlife, like deer, elk, and quail
  • A Monterey County rancher I know likes to seed rye, vetch, oats, barley, and wheat for wildlife. He plows the land before seeding and has had good success.
     5. Rehabilitate a dryland horse pasture that has been severely grazed for many years
  • Similar to #1 above, dryland horse pasture seed mixes will typically have a mix of annual ryegrass, orchardgrass, and brome grasses. Some will have clovers in addition to grasses.
    6. Create or rehab an irrigated pasture for horses, cattle, sheep, or goats
  • Irrigated pastures are less common on the Central Coast than in northern California or the Sierra foothills. We do have some small-scale irrigated pastures, more typically for horses than other grazing animals. UCCE put together a great publication called Establishing and Managing Irrigated Pasture for Horses (Davy et al. 2012). This resource recommends a few cool season grasses: fescue, perennial ryegrass, and orchardgrass. They also recommend the following warm season grasses: dallisgrass, bermudagrass, Kikuyugrass. White clover, trefoil or strawberry clover may be seeded to provide additional protein, but horses will prefer grass. Pastures with more than 10-15% cover of clovers may cause health problems in horses.
  • The Livestock and Land Program recommends perennial ryegrass, blando brome, subclover, and rose clover, in addition to some of the species listed above (Shanks and Moore 2001).
  • Irrigated Pastures in California is an old UCANR publication (Jones and Brown 1942). It still has valuable information on irrigated pastures, including a breakdown of seeding recommendations by county:
    7. Restore native plants
  • Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve is experimenting with seeding Meadow barley (Hordeum brachyantherum), California brome (Bromus carinatus), Needle grasses (Stipa sp.), Blue wildrye (Elymus glaucus), Coast tarweed (Madia sativa), Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), and Lupines. They are still in the experimental stage and do not yet have results. Native seed is substantially more expensive than a typical forage mix, so cost should be considered in your decision to seed with natives.
  • Restoration Manual for Annual Grassland Systems in California is a valuable publication that describes how to prepare a site for seeding natives; which native species are likely to be successful at your site; and different revegetation techniques (Gornish and Shaw 2017): Appendix A is particularly useful. It offers a recommended species list based on your region, restoration goal, and soil type. A brief description of each species, along with pros and cons of using that species, are also included in the body of the manual.
  • This publication has information about seeding native plants after a fire (Gornish, undated):
New seed varieties come on the market and unfortunately, UC Cooperative Extension does not have the capacity to test them all and make county level recommendations. However, these are some factors that may be even more important to seeding success than what varieties you seeded:
  • Perennial v. annual grasses: Perennial grasses tend to have higher success on the coast. So, if your ranch is inland, you may want a smaller amount of perennial grass seed, or none at all.
  • Rainfall: Seeding success will be strongly associated with timing and amount of rainfall. It's best to get seed in the ground in October or early November, before temperatures drop (George and Davy 2016). If temperatures drop before fall germinating rains, then it's best to wait and seed the next year. Several legume varieties (clover, vetch, and medic) require 15 inches of rainfall or more for a successful seeding. Although some clover varieties require as little as 10 inches of rain per year. Areas with 20 inches of rainfall or more will tend to have a higher likelihood of successful seeding (George, pers. comm.).
  • Seeding method: Broadcast seeding is likely to be less successful since seeds are at the soil surface and are easily accessible by birds and other seed eating animals. Broadcast seeding followed by covering the seeds with a rake or a harrow will improve chances of success. Using a seed drill will be even better, particularly for perennial grasses.
  • Vegetation cover: If there is vegetation cover the seeds will have a better growing environment than if there is bare ground. Frost heaving can cause damage to seedlings (Biswell et al. 1953). Heady (1956) found that when soil was covered by Residual Dry Matter (RDM or natural mulch/old feed), frost heaving did not occur. In contrast, frost heaving did occur in areas with no RDM (bare ground). Heady (1956) summarized the literature, saying that a layer of RDM reduces evaporation, maintains a more stable soil temperature, increases organic matter / fertility, and improves water infiltration, which undoubtedly influences seedling success.
  • Soil: Soil nutrients are important for plant growth. For example, clovers require sulfur and phosphorus (George and Davy 2016). If your soils are lacking in these nutrients, then clovers may not grow well. Soils also need to have specific bacteria for clovers to grow. Most soils lack these bacteria, so clover seed needs to be inoculated with the appropriate bacteria to be successful.
  • Weed control: Controlling weeds before and after seeding is critical to the success of your seed application. Usually this is done with herbicide, but can be done manually, mechanically, or with grazing for organic fields, or fields where herbicide is undesirable. The second most important factor in successful perennial grass seeding behind rainfall, is controlling weeds before seeding (George and Davy 2016).
  • Establishing and Managing Irrigated Pasture for Horses has detailed information about how to prepare a seed bed, including weed management, for irrigated pasture seeding (Davy et al. 2012):
The following seeding methods come from George and Davy (2016). Here's a link to the publication with more detailed instructions:
  •  Clovers (see page 208):Broadcast or drill seed. Make sure about ½ inch of soil covers the seed. Seeding rate is typically 10-20 lbs./acre. If broadcast seeding, cover seed using a ring roller or harrow. Seeding before fall rains in October or November gives better success than waiting until December. As noted earlier, if germinating rains come late, after the weather cools down, it's best to wait until the next year to seed.
  • Annual grasses (see page 209): Seeding options are the same for clovers. However, drill seeding should be done using a grassland or rangeland drill. The area to be seeded should not have bare ground. It should have some RDM (i.e. natural mulch/old feed), but it should be grazed fairly close to the ground. If broadcast seeding, first lightly disk or harrow the soil down to 1 inch deep. Cover the seed by gently rolling or dragging a harrow. Seeding rate is typically 5-10 lbs./acre.
  • Perennial grasses (see page 210): During the spring prior to seeding, use a nonselective herbicide to control grass and broadleaf weeds. During the following fall, spray again with a nonselective herbicide after germination. Then, drill seed to a maximum of ¼ inch right after spraying. In early spring after the newly seeded grasses come up, spray with a broadleaf-specific herbicide to control non-grass weeds. The authors recommend excluding grazing for 2-3 years, until the grasses are established and cannot be pulled up by livestock. For long-term management, they recommend grazing during winter to mid-spring and again in summer.
 Here's what I've been told by various experts:
  • Clovers: Don't exclude cattle from fields seeded with clover. If there's no grazing during the first spring after clover seeding, grasses may grow tall and outcompete the lower-statured clovers.
  • Annual Grasses: You don't need to exclude cattle from areas seeded with annual grasses. Although, if you are concerned about establishment, you may want to exclude livestock for a month or two to let them establish.
  • Perennial Grasses: There are different schools of thought on whether or not to graze perennial grasses during the first year after seeding.
  1. George and Davy (2016) suggest that you should not graze for 2-3 years after seeding perennial grasses. This will allow the perennial grasses to establish.
  2. A local expert recommended that since so many weeds may come up after you seed, you want to graze the first spring after seeding for weed control.
  3. Seeded Range Plants for California recommends that grazing should be excluded until the first summer after seeding, when grasses are big enough that livestock can't pull them out of the ground (George et al. 1983). However, they can be grazed earlier, during the first spring after seeding, if needed for weed control. This publication also recommends not grazing the perennial grasses below 3-4 inches.
This is not a comprehensive list and I do not recommend any one seed company over another. This list is intended to provide you with some local and online options, that I am familiar with, for purchasing seed. 
Forage seed on the Central Coast is available at
  • Buttonwillow Warehouse Company in Salinas, Paso Robles, and throughout the Central Valley
  • Clyde Robin Seed Co. available online
  • Harmony Valley Farm Supply in Sebastopol and onlineL.A. Hearne Company in King City, Salinas, and online
  • Kamprath Seed, Inc. in Manteca and online
  • Ranchers Feed of Hollister in Hollister
  • San Miguel Flouring Mill in San Miguel
  • Tractor Supply in Gilroy, Watsonville, Los Banos, Paso Robles, and online
  • Tres Pinos Ranch Supply & Feed in Tres Pinos
 Native seed
  • Hedgerow Farms in Winters
  • Pacific Coast Seed in Livermore and online
  • S & S Seed in Carpinteria and online