Forage Quality and the Value of Legumes in Pastures


On many farm visits, the main topic of discussion  usually leads to ways of improving the quality of the pastures and hay fields, primary forages based on fescue. Judging from the appearance of cattle and other grazing livestock, the fescue is usually hot, meaning it has a high level of endophyte.

The discussion usually turned to ways to overcome the endophyte. Options discussed included complete renovation of the fields, using an intensive grazing system, feeding supplements, and/or interseeding clovers into the fescue. 

After a brief conservation, we usually settle on rotational grazing system and interseeding of clovers and lespedeza into the existing pastures.  So, why incorporate these two options?

To improved quality of forage and lower levels of endophyte.

By using a rotational grazing system, the grass will stay in a vegetative stage of growth longer as it does not have the opportunity to go to seed.  Research has shown that concentrations of toxin produced by the endophyte fungus are much higher in the stem and seed tissues of fescue than in the leaf tissue. A bonus of rotational grazing versus continuous grazing is that forage quality and quantity are improved.

One of the more economical ways to compensate for the ill effects of the fescue endophyte is by interseeding legumes into the infected fescue. Past studies have shown cattle performances improve when comparing low endophyte fescue pastures and the high endophyte fescue pastures plus ladino clover. Based on average daily gains, cattle grazing the low endophyte and/or the high endophyte plus ladino clover pastures were in excess of 1.5 pounds. However, cattle on the high endophyte pastures alone gained less than one pound per day.

Adding legumes to your pastures and hay fields is an excellent way to improve our forage. The value of clover and lespedeza, when added to your pastures, is the increase in the quality (feed value) of the forage and the dilution effect on the endophyte.

Red clovers are the most widely grown of all the true clovers. It is the preferred clover in hay fields and in pastures when rotational grazing is practical.

When overseeding two varieties of red clover – Kenlan and Kenstar – are recommended for this area.  These varieties are high yielding and have shown good resistance to some of our most prevalent diseases.  There may also be other varieties available in your area so check with your local seed supplier to see what they have.  If red clover is your choice, then it is time to get in gear.

The recommended fall seeding dates for red clover are August 15 to September 14.  The best method of seeding into a fescue sod is to use a no-till drill. However, if you have missed this date then late winter frost seeding is another option. This is usually done in February and has proven to be another acceptable method.

Ladino clover also does well in pastures. It will withstand heavier grazing pressure than will the red clovers.  Two deterrents to using ladino are the possibility of its causing bloat and its inability to survive prolong periods of dry weather. Red Clover and Ladino Clovers are both cool season legumes meaning they will come early, play out in the hot summer months, and will reappear in the fall given enough moisture is available.

Lespedezas are excellent legume choices for improving the quality and quantity of our summer    pastures.  Two species of the annual lespedeza are grown in Missouri – Lespedeza Striata (common, kobe) and Lespedeza Stipulacea (Korean).  These may also be over seeded into existing pastures.  Remember these are annuals so they are much easier to graze out and need special attention for retention.

There are programs available to help with the cost of overseeding legumes into your fescue pastures. The DSP-2 program is administered through your local Soil and Water Conservation District. This program provides for 75% cost share on the lime, fertilizer, seed and drilling necessary for establishing the legume. There are some requirement that must be followed for this program such as a current soil test. For more information, call your local SWCD office.

Also, keep in mind a field of weeds is a field of weeds and cattle usually do not benefit from this situation.  Weeds are not considered a dilution method to endophyte. For more information on the establishment and maintenance of legumes in a forage program, contact your University Extension Center and request Extension Guides.

Source: Terry Halleran, MU Extension Agronomy Specialist