Legumes Enrich Your Sward

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May 21, 2017

By Karl Dallefeld

 CASCADE, Iowa: Legumes are an important part of the diversity of any pasture or cover crop and they bring far more to the table than simply nitrogen credits. 

I have observed many situations where the same amount of synthetic nitrogen was applied to both straight grasses and grass/clover blends.  The rates were high enough that the grass should have been dark green. One example, was a show plot for a seed company and the grass needed to be a deep green. Where the clovers and the grasses were combined, the grasses were not only a deeper green, they were also less susceptible to rust and other leaf diseases.   

The above example may sound obvious to some; however, let’s ask ourselves an honest question - how much diversity exists in the pastures across the nation?   

As I have stated many times, the more diversity a pasture has the better the forage quality and the longer the quality holds. The benefits of legumes beyond nitrogen credits are building healthy populations of below ground soil life.  This in turn helps restructure soils so that roots can penetrate deeper.  Deeper roots mean more mineral uptake and better tolerance to dry conditions. The symbiotic relationship between the different plants creates an overall improvement in soil life and structure. 

Healthy plants are also less susceptible to disease and are more palatable. Better quality forages and more palatability generally leads to healthier livestock thatmilk better or have a better rate of gain.  These principles are also applicable worldwide.  Diversity in our pastures and on our farm and ranch fields makes a real difference here and across the globe.   

If you don’t have legumes or the numbers are limited on your pastures and other areas, you should look at ways to get them established on your farm or ranch.  The good news is, regardless of your location, there are ways to increase and reintroduce or regenerate clovers onto your fields and pastures. With solid management and continued stewardship, we can improve the vitality of plant populations across the board.   

The spectrum of legumes runs from annuals to long-lived perennials. Making a decision on what to seed will depend on what you are trying to achieve, timing and your environment. Because of the vast differences across this country and even local micro-climates, I hesitate to give off-thecuff recommendations. I would suggest that a producer seek out sources of information that can give ideas and a feel for what works in the area you live. Old wisdom for me is a first stop.  Historical books and publications regarding agriculture have a lot of good information and is a way to see what was native to your particular area. Grasses and Grassland Farming and Native Plants of North America are two examples of reference books. Both were printed before 1965.   

I will seed a diverse blend of clovers and legumes that make sense, but my overall goal is that through grazing management, the native species of plants will start popping up to further enhance the pasture.  

As long as the new arrivals are desirable, I know that I am on the right track for a healthier pasture or grassland.   

Great grazers in the local area would be another resource to visit with and, more importantly, observe what is happening in your pastures. Good seedsmen and women can tell you when and how the individual plants function.  Read, visit and observe - these things will help in making sound decisions on what to plant or reestablish.  

When seeding into existing pastures, I would recommend a mix of both annual and perennial legumes.  Timing will be important depending on what part of the country you are in. In the south, you may fall seed or start with warm-season annuals in the spring and then over-seed the cool-season legumes in the fall.  In the north, a spring seeding of cool-season annuals and perennials can be effective.   

We will generally plant a mix of red clover, white (ladino) clover, birdsfoot trefoil, alsike clover, crimson clover, berseem clover, balansa clover and even a bit of alfalfa. This gives us a good jumpstart on diversity and is a balance of annual-to-perennial plants. In addition, we like to add plantain, chicory, little burnet and a touch of milkvetch. This is a general recommendation for the Upper Midwest.  In different parts of the country, the names will change; however, the principles remain the same.  In damaged or diminished pastures, we try to seed in both cool-season and warm-season annuals. This will include sorghums, millets, oats, barley and a combination of cowpeas, forage peas and a brassica. The reasoning for this is to introduce annuals to stimulate the soil biology and help the establishment of ourperennial plants. When drilling this combination into an established pasture, the plants may not express themselves and look impressive; however, the improvements to the soil will show up down the road.   

Most pastures that I have observed are not always nitrogen deprived; instead, they are generally deprived of air, water and life.  If the soils are compacted or the air and water are compressed out of the soil, the biology can’t thrive.  The annual plants will be more aggressive in feeding the biology and will also try to root deeper, helping to get air and water back into balance.   

I would suggest keeping a running record of the plant species in your swards. Note all the plants that are present, including the forbs and even the undesirables. This needs to be an ongoing project as the pasture populations will change with the seasons and your management practices. Keeping an ongoing record of the plants in your pastures will allow you to monitor progress. Diversity counts in soil health, forage quality and animal health. Legumes and forbs are an integral part of an overall healthy sward. 

■ Karl Dallefeld has been involved with agronomy for the past 30 years and utilizes forages and cover crops in his own cattle operation. In 2009, he co-founded  Prairie Creek Seed to provide seed genetics and management advice to farmers. Contact him at karld@prairiecreekseed.com or www.prairiecreekseed.com.

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