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Utilizing different varieties for grass hay and pastures increases productivity

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Riverton – In the U.S., there are 26 plant and materials centers that seek out and test plants and plant techniques that restore and sustain healthy natural ecosystems. All of these centers are a part of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

“Normally we take native seed collections and compare them against other varieties, and if they are better we release them to the public,” said Roger Hybner, research agronomist for the Bridger Plant and Materials Center in Bridger, Mont.

Hybner spoke at the Fremont Farm and Ranch Days in Riverton on Feb. 13 about different grass and forage varieties producers can use for their operations. 


A variety of non-bloat legume producers can grow is sainfoin. 

For small acreage producers, it is good forage for horses and produces slightly lower tonnage amounts than alfalfa. 

Hybner explained that sainfoin is not as common as alfalfa and says, “It doesn’t regrow nearly as fast as alfalfa. We might get two cuttings off of it, rather than three or four.”

“It is a good forage to plant with alfalfa and won’t out-compete or drown it out,” added Hybner. 

Sainfoin grows well in high altitude but does require about 12 to 13 inches of moisture. It is not recommended for dryland production. 

“Sainfoin does have a large seed size that has pods on it,” explains Hybner. “It is recommended to be planted at 34 pounds an acre, but a few producers have been able to bump that down to 23 to 24 pounds and get away with it.”

It is not a very competitive seedling and is recommended to be planted in alternative rows and not be grazed the first year. 

In sainfoin’s first year of establishment, it can be cut for hay later in the summer to early fall when the roots have been established. 

Birdsfoot trefoil

Birdsfoot trefoil has a symbiotic relationship with sainfoin and is a good companion crop to increase growth and productivity. 

“This is a really good legume to put on heavy clay soils where alfalfa doesn’t do as well,” he said. “It can also tolerate flooding that alfalfa can’t.”

The seed of birdsfoot trefoil is very small, and its recommended seeding rate is three pounds per acre. 

“When using birdsfoot trefoil in mixes, it’s good to keep the seeding rate at its full rate,” described Hybner. “It works very well on aggressive grasses, such as creeping foxtail, smooth brome and intermediate wheatgrass.”

One of the limitations of birdsfoot trefoil is that it does not grow well in shaded areas and takes a while for it to become established. The yield from birdsfoot trefoil is not as high as alfalfa. 

“It is not seen in hay production very often because of the shading effect from the taller forages,” he added. 

Cicer milkvetch

Cicer milkvetch is a legume that has a hollow stem, and when used for hay production, a crimper needs to be used on the swather. 

A noticeable characteristic of cicer milkvetch is that its pods turn black during summer.

“It has a hard seed content, and we recommend getting the seed scarified before planting,” added Hybner. 

Scarification facilitates air and water absorption and allows for a quicker germination. 

Cicer milkvetch is used for rotational grazing because it regrows quickly and spreads out farther than alfalfa while containing the same nutritional value as alfalfa. It, however, is not as palatable as alfalfa, birdsfoot trefoil or sainfoin. 

When baling for hay, cicer milkvetch is able to retain its leaves better than alfalfa. 

Tall fescue

Tall fescue is not commonly used in hay mixes because of the palatability issues associated with it, but Hybner noted some producers have said it has worked well for them. 

“To me, hearing from people on the ground that something works, rather than out of book, is a lot more concrete,” he added. 

Hybner warned against fescue lawn varieties, for they contain a fungal endophyte that causes fescue toxicity. The fescue type producers should use are the forage types.   

Calving forages

Hybner also made recommendations for forages that are optimal to be utilized during calving season.

Trailhead basin wildrye can be either sub-irrigated or irrigated and is great for winter grazing or providing shelter during calving. 

It grows three to six feet tall and can reach 10 feet under optimum conditions.

“Producers won’t want to graze it during the growing season because the growing point comes out of the ground,” warned Hybner. “If a cow clips that growing point off, the plant is done for the year.”

There has been good success when haying trailhead basin wildrye when a four-inch stubble is left after it has matured in late summer. 

Basin wildrye is another excellent forage for calving pastures for nutrition as well as the shelter it provides for calves. 

“Over the winter it softens up and provides 10 to 11 percent protein,” he said. 

Madeline Robinson is the assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

Weed control

“When planting areas for weed control, don’t skimp on seeding rates,” said Roger Hybner, research agronomist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service. “Adding an extra pound or two will be well worth the effort and extra expense.”

Inter-seeding into existing stands is one of many effective methods to control weeds. When choosing a variety to inter-seed with, Hybner suggested a variety that has bigger seeds, like winter wheat or triticale. 

Mowing seed heads is another technique to reducing weeds, but this method only lasts for a couple of weeks until another seed head grows back. 

Hybner also advises one to two years of cheatgrass control before inter-seeding a pasture infested with cheatgrass to make sure any of the weed seeds from it have been depleted from the pasture. Less competition from the weed seeds allows the inter-seeded grass seeds to germinate. 

“Cheatgrass will suck any moisture away from those newly-planted plants,” said Hybner.


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