Whether a producer is part time or commercial, good pastures are profitable. They can provide an economical source of livestock feed, reduce labor requirements, build soil tilth and fertility, reduce erosion, and reduce invasions of noxious and poisonous weeds.

When obtaining new land that will be used for forage production, especially pasture, a forage-livestock producer is encouraged to use the first year carefully. Fertilizing wisely and managing the pasture strategically enables the producer to learn much about what the land is capable of producing. Investing in establishing a pasture from scratch may sound thorough but the pasture can easily revert to the previous plant composition in a few years, becoming a waste of money, time, and labor, if the land is poorly managed. Well established and managed perennial pastures can produce effectively for five to ten years or more.

When a pasture or forage crop is wanted and not currently available or productive, a forage-livestock producer must know how to properly establish a forage stand. Starting from scratch would mean taking a piece of land that was previously planted in a monoculture crop or some wooded land that has been cleared and preparing it, seeding, and producing forage. Establishing a forage plot for pasture or mechanical harvesting can be a risky business.

Removing whatever is currently growing takes careful thought and preparation. Establishing a quality forage stand requires many steps. One factor that must be considered is possible erosion during the time the ground is prepared for planting but not producing. Many producers plan well in advance to reduce the possibility of erosion during that critical time period. With the concept of advance planning in place, removing the existing plants usually means using a powerful herbicide. Liming, fertilization, further weed control and proper seeding need to be carefully planned.

Successful pasture establishment has three essential building blocks: good soil conditions, a properly adapted species, and good weather. The best one to start with is a well-adapted species. Choose to plant a species that is well adapted to the soil pH, the expected climate conditions (winter hardiness), realistic drought or flood tolerance, and well suited to the intended use and livestock type. Species selection is so critical that a complete module is devoted to it in this National Forage & Grasslands Curriculum.

Once a forage species has been carefully chosen, look to make the best possible soil conditions. Work to improve soil fertility, which means having adequate levels of macro- and micronutrients, soil structure (aeration, friability) and pH. Keep in mind that eventually a fine, moist seedbed is desired. There are about 20 essential elements for good plant growth. Having a soil test done on several random spots on the intended pasture land will help determine what is needed to improve soil fertility.

Successful establishment of a pasture is greatly determined by weather. The temperature extremes, expected precipitation, and flooding possibilities need to be considered. Many weather conditions are often out of your control but establishment planning should utilize as much weather information as possible. Weather patterns in many areas indicate that spring and fall are the most moderate seasons and establishment often occurs then. However, in areas where spring is very wet and unpredictable, like the northwest, establishment often occurs in the fall. Since a moist soil will be beneficial, certain weather conditions can somentimes be very wisely used.

Overall, establishing a pasture can mean a high-quality forage that is well matched to the intended livestock and use. A producer can carefully plan what is best for his operation. If well planned and carried out, establishing a forage stand can mean years of high-quality feed. On the other hand, establishing a forage stand requires careful planning, usually a year in advance, and specific steps in preparation, but the efforts may fail if weather conditions sabotage the efforts. Erosion is a real concern when starting from scratch because there will be time when no plants are holding onto the soil.