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Anderson: Mix grasses and legumes to develop long-lasting, nutritional grazing

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

By making improvements in pasture grasses, ranchers may be able to provide their livestock with longer grazing seasons and better nutrition. Bruce Anderson, extension forage specialist with the University of Nebraska, recently discussed the possibility of improving pastures by adding a mixture of grasses and legumes. 

Anderson encouraged ranchers to think about pasture improvement, adding, “Without good grazing management, all production improvements will be wasted. The grazing management program we use is critical to the investment in the pasture improvements we make.”

During his presentation, Anderson advised producers who want to make improvements to their pastures to consider grass-legume mixtures with different maturities to lengthen the grazing season and strengthen livestock nutrition. 

Cool season grasses

One of the most popular cool season grasses in the central Great Plains region is smooth bromegrass, Anderson said. The grass is adapted to a wide variety of soils and is an aggressive sod former that will fill open spaces not filled by other plants. It is very palatable, grazing tolerant and handles most of the conditions it is forced to endure, Anderson explained. 

Orchardgrass is characterized by rapid regrowth after grazing or haying and relatively good growth during the summer heat. Depending upon the variety, maturity can vary up to a month. 

“Orchardgrass can be a good mixture with smooth bromegrass,” he said, “but in a pasture mix, I would select different varieties of orchard grass as part of my management scheme 

Tall fescue is a bunch grass that spreads, forming a sod over time. It is a durable grass, with a good distribution of growth, Anderson said. It also has moderate salinity and alkalinity tolerance. 

“One of its strengths is it is very tolerant in sub-optimum soil conditions,” Anderson explained. “It is a good choice in stressed soils.” 

Producers who are considering Tall fescue should select a variety that is endophyte-free, Anderson cautioned. There are some quality issues with Tall fescue because of an internal fungus, endrophyte, that can cause some animal health problems, Anderson explained. 

Intermediate wheat grass is a cool season perennial relatively late maturing with moderate salinity and alkalinity tolerance. 

“What is good about intermediate wheat grass is it will form seed heads and seed stalks later, which spreads out the availability of cool season grasses,” Anderson said. “It also has better drought tolerance than other cool season grass varieties.”

Legume benefits

“Legumes are the most often overlooked and under-utilized part of our pasture system,” Anderson stated. 

Although they can be a challenge to establish amongst grasses, once they are established they can improve animal performance. 

“Because they have high protein and better digestibility, they can improve the performance of the livestock that utilize it,” he explained.

In a pasture study of a combination of brome and legumes nearly a decade ago, Anderson said animals gained an estimated 0.39 additional pounds per day for 144 days, which was approximately 56 pounds per animal. Early in the season, the pasture was approximately 10 percent legumes when the brome was growing, but became closer to 20 to 25 percent legume later in the growing season when the brome was dormant. Anderson said the study showed a producer could make money by the additional weight his livestock gained just by being able to eat a higher quality product and having plenty of it available. 

One of the most popular legumes to establish in a pasture is Red clover, Anderson said. 

“It is easy to establish, but the single plants are short-lived,” he said. “They may only live three or four years, so management-wise it may need to be reseeded periodically.” 

“Alfalfa can be one of the highest yielding legumes that can be grown under a wide range of soil conditions,” Anderson said. 

“The advantages of alfalfa are the excellent quality and good summer growth,” he said, adding that cattle can be more likely to bloat if they consume too much alfalfa.

An alternative to alfalfa is Birdsfoot Trefoil, which doesn’t cause bloat but is slower to establish. 

“Once established, it has good grazing and drought tolerance,” he said.

Producers should look at adding a mixture of legume varieties to improve longevity. 

“A mixture of Red clover and alfalfa is a good choice,” he said. 

The Red Clover will grow early, and the alfalfa will provide some longevity in the stand, as well as some diversity in the diet. 

“White clover, alfalfa, Trefoil and milk vetch all tend to be long-lived varieties if you use good grazing practices,” he explained. “Red clover is a short-lived plant, but if you reseed it every other year, you can maintain a good stand of new, young, healthier seedling plants.”

Establishing legumes

Anderson recommends producers use a no-till or double disk drill to successfully seed legumes one-quarter inch deep into existing sod. 

“I usually don’t see a good response from seed that is broadcast,” Anderson said. “The plants just don’t become as well established. Seed that is drilled will have a more consistent stand and be more productive.” 

Once planted, ranchers should fertilize with phosphorus, which is needed by the legume seedlings for fertility. 

“Don’t fertilize with nitrogen,” Anderson warned. “It will cause the legumes to have to compete with the existing sod.”

Producers may also need to test the top couple inches of soil for pH and may need to apply some lime to help the legumes become established if the ground is found to be acidic.

Once the legumes develop, Anderson said it is important to monitor the sod and legumes to control competition. At this point, he said it is important to not overgraze, and the sod may need a chemical suppressant. 

Giving grasses a boost

To give cool season grasses a boost, University of Nebraska Extension Forage Specialist Bruce Anderson said ranchers may want to consider applying some nitrogen fertilizer in the early spring in a recent presentation. With nitrogen costs increasing, Anderson said producers should evaluate their pastures so they apply the fertilizer when it will stimulate the most growth. 

They should also be prepared to carefully manage grazing after nitrogen is applied, so the animals can utilize the growth rather than trampling, using it for bedding, or other wasteful methods. 

“It is important to manage the timing of the application of nitrogen and how it is applied,” he said. “It would be ideal to get the extra growth when it is needed.” 

Anderson believes that producers who apply nitrogen to their pasture should be able to get one additional pound of gain per one pound of nitrogen, if the nitrogen is applied within the recommended amounts for the region it is being applied in. The fertilizer should also be applied when there is some moisture, he added.

In some instances, producers may also need to test their soil to see if phosphorus is also needed. 

“Producers may get more response by applying both nitrogen and phosphorus, instead of just one or the other,” he said. “Nitrogen and phosphorus together can influence the composition of the stand when there is both grasses and legumes present.”

“Nitrogen stimulates grass growth making it more competitive and decreases the amount of legumes. Phosphorus will give the legumes more response,” he added.

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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