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Grazing Factsheets - Species - Cool-Season Perennial Legumes

Grazing Factsheets

Species
Cool-Season Perennial Legumes

Alfalfa
Alsike Clover
Birdsfoot Trefoil
Crownvetch
Kura Clover
Ladino Clover

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Outline of State of Illinois with GrassSpecies
Cool-Season Perennial Legume

Alfalfa

Illinois

General Information

Alfalfa is a deep-rooted, perennial legume, and is considered the most nutritious and oldest-known crop grown for forage.

The first recorded occurrence of alfalfa in the United States was in Texas around 1700. From there, its use spread throughout the southeastern part of the country. Today, there are five types grown.

Alfalfa is an excellent plant for controlling soil erosion, improving soil, fertility and for providing nesting cover for wildlife.

Adaptability

Alfalfa is adapted to deep, fertile, well-drained soils. The soil should be high in calcium, and should have a pH between 6.5 and 7.0 to support the best production.

Characteristics

Alfalfa will grow two to three feet tall with five to 20 erect stems rising from a fleshy, crown. The flower is generally bluish purple and shaped like a pea flower. However, some varieties’ flowers are yellow. Clusters of three leaflets are arranged alternately on the stem. The deep-rooted plant has an almost straight taproot with very few branches.

Establishment

A soil test should be obtained before seeding alfalfa. Lime and fertilizer should be applied as recommended. Lime should be applied at least six months prior to planting.

Once a clean, firm seedbed is prepared, a cultipacker should be used before and after planting to ensure stand survival.

A nurse crop of small grain may be planted at a rate of 20 pounds per acre to protect the new seedlings. The nurse crop must be controlled to reduce competition for moisture, nutrients and sunlight.
Check with the Natural Resources Conservation Service or University Extension for proper seeding rates.

Alfalfa does well when planted with brome or orchard grass, and is moderately compatible when planted with Timothy, Tall Fescue, and Reed Canary grasses. Alfalfa also does well when planted with legumes, such as Bird’s-Foot Trefoil, Red Clover, and Alsike Clover.

The proper management of alfalfa requires intense labor and maintenance. Pests such as weevils and leaf hoppers need to be controlled.

Management

Alfalfa is very nutritious and highly palatable when used for hay or grazing.

When grown for hay, alfalfa should be cut at one-tenth bloom, or when new shoots begin to emerge from the crown.

Alfalfa will not cure well during cool, wet conditions. In these instances, a crimper should be used to improve the rate of curing.

Phosphorus, potassium and lime may be applied in the spring or fall, preferably in the fall. The last cutting should be timed to allow for one month of regrowth before the first killing frost. When managed properly, alfalfa will provide a protein content of 20 percent and a total digestive nutrient value of 60 percent or greater.

Alfalfa should not be grazed until plants reach a height of six to eight inches, and should not be grazed closer than three inches.

When alfalfa is grown in a mixture of grasses, the chances of bloat are reduced. Otherwise, bloat inhibiting additives are recommended.

Fields of alfalfa should be small enough for livestock to graze off the forage in three days. The grazing period should be followed by 20 to 25 days of rest.

It is advisable to alternate grazing periods with hay cutting to get uniform use of the field and to keep the regrowth lush and productive.

Where to Get Help

For more information about alfalfa, contact the local office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service listed in the telephone directory under “U.S. Government,” or the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service.


The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) prohibits discrimination in all its programs and activities on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age, disability, political beliefs, sexual orientation, or marital or family status. (Not all prohibited bases apply to all programs.) Persons with disabilities who require alternative means for communication of program information (Braille, large print, audio tape, etc.) should contact USDA’s TARGET Center at 202-720-2600 (voice and TDD).

To file a complaint of discrimination, write USDA, Director, Office of Civil Rights, Room 326-W, Whitten Building, 1400 Independence Avenue, SW, Washington, DC 20250-9410 or call (202) 720-5964 (voice and TDD). USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.”

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Outline of State of Illinois with GrassSpecies
Cool-Season Perennial Legume

Alsike Clover

Illinois

General Information

Alsike Clover is an upright, short lived, perennial legume that is often agriculturally treated as a biennial plant, and is often grown in combination with other grasses for hay or pasture.

Alsike lacks persistence, usually living for only two years. Alsike somewhat resembles red Clover with stems one to three feet long, but they are more slender and more prostrate.

Stems and leaves are smooth and the flower heads are pink or white. Alsike Clover tillers profusely from the crown.

The stem does not terminate in a flowering head but keeps on growing. Flowers bearing branches arise from each leaf axis so that the oldest flowers are nearer the base of the stem.

Adaptability

Alsike Clover is believed to have originated in Sweden, and has been cultivated in Europe for centuries. It was introduced into England and Scotland about 1830 and into the United States by 1840.

Alsike Clover is compatible to low wet areas with such grasses as Fescue, Reed Canary grass, Switch grass and Eastern Gama grass. Adapts better than Red Clover to sour, wet sites, and will tolerate flooding for long periods. Growth persists throughout hot weather as long as moisture is adequate. Alsike can be killed out if drought periods become prolonged. Susceptible to the same diseases as red Clover, Alsike is Clover considered resistant to anthracnose. Alsike Clover does well on soil that is too acid for Red Clover.

Establishment

Alsike Clover responds well to phosphate, potash and lime. Any needed fertility should be incorporated during seedbed preparation whenever possible. Soil pH should be brought up to at least 6.0 when a new stand is established. Seeds should be planted about one-fourth-inch deep and have the soil firmed around them by using a drill with packer wheels or by cultipacking after seeding.

Check with the Natural Resources Conservation Service or University Extension for proper seeding rates.

Seed needs to be treated with the proper inoculant within 12 hours of planting.

Weedy competition needs to be controlled until the stand is established.

Varieties best suited to Illinois include Aurora and Dawn.

Management

Alsike Clover is very palatable to all grazing animals, protein, and energy content is a little greater than red Clover.

Although not a lot of quantity is added, overall quality of pastures is improved when established into predominantly grass fields, and preferred by rabbits, geese, and other wildlife.

Alsike Clover provides excellent nesting cover when planted in grass mixtures. The tendency to lodge is also reduced when grown with tall, upright growing grasses.

Mixtures with grasses will reduce the incident of bloat.

Alsike Clover usually produces only one cutting of hay per season. Harvest the hay when in full bloom.

Limited grazing is sometimes OK during late fall on fields cut for hay. Like other palatable forage species, rest is necessary for the plant to recover from grazing.

The grazing period should not exceed seven days followed by a rest of at least 21 days. Rest periods will need to be longer when the growth rate is slower.

As with other legumes and palatable forage species, rotations are necessary to maintain vigor.

Where to Get Help

For more information about alsike Clover, contact the local office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service listed in the telephone directory under “U.S. Government,” or the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service.


The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) prohibits discrimination in all its programs and activities on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age, disability, political beliefs, sexual orientation, or marital or family status. (Not all prohibited bases apply to all programs.) Persons with disabilities who require alternative means for communication of program information (Braille, large print, audio tape, etc.) should contact USDA’s TARGET Center at 202-720-2600 (voice and TDD).

To file a complaint of discrimination, write USDA, Director, Office of Civil Rights, Room 326-W, Whitten Building, 1400 Independence Avenue, SW, Washington, DC 20250-9410 or call (202) 720-5964 (voice and TDD). USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.”

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Outline of State of Illinois with GrassSpecies
Cool-Season Perennial Legume

Birdsfoot Trefoil

Illinois

General Information

There are two Annual Lespedezas used for pasture and hay in Illinois: Striate (or Common) and Korean. Common originated in Japan, and was introduced into the United States in 1846. Korean was introduced from Korea in 1919.

A good way to distinguish the two from each other is by their stem hairs. The hairs on Korean slant up, while those on Common slant down.

The leaves of Korean turn upward after flowering to protect the seed pods. Leaves do not protect the seed pod on Common.

The plant will vary in height from four to 24 inches, depending on growing conditions. The flowers range from purple to pink in all varieties.

Adaptability

Annual lespedeza will grow in most types of soil that are well drained. Lespedezas tolerate low fertility, yet respond to lime and phosphorus. Annual lespedeza is best suited to a pH of 5.5 - 6.0, but can produce good yields with pH levels as low as 5.0.

Lespedeza is very drought resistant, likes hot weather, and produces well throughout the warm season. Being an annual, year-to-year production is more dependent on the current weather conditions.

Annual lespedeza was more widely used in the 1940s and 1950s. Several factors contributed to its decline: the drought of 1953 and 1954; susceptibility to bacterial wilt and tar spot; and the increased use of fertilizer on fescue. Legumes find it difficult to compete with fertilized, aggressive grasses.

Establishment

Annual lespedeza should be planted in the spring, into a well prepared, firm seedbed, to which any needed fertilizer has been incorporated. An alternate method is to broadcast over pastures in late winter, allowing normal freezing and thawing to work the seed into the soil. Frost seeding is often done during fertilizer application, and can be quite successful if the nitrogen level is limited.

Check with the Natural Resources Conservation Service or University Extension for proper seeding rates.

Once established, enough seed should be produced to perpetuate the stand.

The Korean varieties best adapted to Illinois are Korean and Summit. Kobe and Marion are the best adapted Striate or Common types for Illinois.

Management

Lespedeza is a non-bloating legume that is palatable to all kinds of grazing livestock, and does a good job of supplying high quality forage during the warm season when cool-season grasses become dormant.

Established with endophyte infected fescue, the effect is diluted by supplying a non-contaminated component to the ration.

When mature, an anti-lactation factor in the seed can cause a reduction in milk production in dairy cows.

Hay yields, though not high, are good quality with few curing problems because of the late harvesting date.

Annual lespedeza is compatible with most of the cool-season grasses as long as nitrogen levels are not too high.

Lespedeza may be one of the best legumes to use with warm-season grasses because of matches in growth cycle. Probably one of the best at surviving close, continuous grazing. When closely grazed, Lespedeza tends to grow low to the ground and escapes utilization allowing seed production.

The seed provides a high quality food for quail and other seed-eating wildlife. The forage is used as browse by deer, turkey and rabbits. The ability to provide good production with lower levels of management, annual lespedeza works well in low input forage systems.

Where to Get Help

For more information about annual lespedeza, contact the local office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service listed in the telephone directory under “U.S. Government,” or the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service.


The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) prohibits discrimination in all its programs and activities on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age, disability, political beliefs, sexual orientation, or marital or family status. (Not all prohibited bases apply to all programs.) Persons with disabilities who require alternative means for communication of program information (Braille, large print, audio tape, etc.) should contact USDA’s TARGET Center at 202-720-2600 (voice and TDD).

To file a complaint of discrimination, write USDA, Director, Office of Civil Rights, Room 326-W, Whitten Building, 1400 Independence Avenue, SW, Washington, DC 20250-9410 or call (202) 720-5964 (voice and TDD). USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.”

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Outline of State of Illinois with GrassSpecies
Cool-Season Perennial Legume

Crownvetch

Illinois

General Information

Crownvetch is a cool-season, perennial legume that may be utilized for livestock grazing, hay production, wildlife habitat, seed production or erosion control. Following are some pros and cons associated with crownvetch.

Livestock Grazing: Palatability is high in early growing stages, but becomes poor at full maturity because of bitterness from high glycoside content. Protein value can reach 18 percent with optimum fertility and if grazing is properly managed.

Hay Production: Yields range from three to four tons per acre. Curing hay may be a problem because of thick, heavy stems.

Wildlife Habitat: Crownvetch provides excellent escape cover and nesting for rabbits and quail, and an excellent food source for deer, turkey and rabbits during its young and tender growth stages.

Seed Production: Seed is difficult to harvest because seeds mature at different times. Harvesting methods involve a combine or seed stripper.

Erosion Control: Crownvetch makes an excellent cover for road banks, farm pond levees, mine spoils and other disturbed areas.

Adaptability

Crownvetch has a wide range of climatic adaptations, but performance has been much superior on well-drained soils. Crownvetch is tolerant of both low pH and low fertility, but is highly responsive to lime, phosphorus and potassium. Growth usually peaks around the end of May to early June. Varieties available include Emerald, Penngift and Chemung. Seedlings of Emerald and Chemung are more vigorous than Penngift. Chemung and Emerald usually have taller growth and broader leaves than Penngift. Chemung appears to be better adapted to low fertility sites.

Characteristics

Crownvetch produces creeping stems two to six feet long, and grows to a height of three to four feet, and looks similar to a young alfalfa plant in seedling stages.

Adult plants produce long, narrow, finger-like seed pods, and the plant may extend to a length of 10 feet or more.

Crownvetch is compatible with Orchard grass and Fescue. It will not tolerate wet soils or shade, but is very drought tolerant. Crownvetch is a nonbloating legume, and a good source of nitrogen for associated grasses.

Establishment

Check with the Natural Resources Conservation Service or University Extension for proper seeding rates.

Lime and fertilizer should be applied according to a soil test. The seed should be inoculated. Use a no-till drill on undisturbed soil. On bare soil, disk, roll and then broadcast or drill the seed. If broadcast roll following seeding to ensure good seed-to-soil contact.

Chemical weed control will encourage a good stand.

Management

The growing point of crownvetch is at the top of the plant. Graze when eight inches tall, but should not be grazed lower than four inches.

Where to Get Help

For more information about crownvetch, contact the local office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service listed in the telephone directory under “U.S. Government,” or the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service.


The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) prohibits discrimination in all its programs and activities on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age, disability, political beliefs, sexual orientation, or marital or family status. (Not all prohibited bases apply to all programs.) Persons with disabilities who require alternative means for communication of program information (Braille, large print, audio tape, etc.) should contact USDA’s TARGET Center at 202-720-2600 (voice and TDD).

To file a complaint of discrimination, write USDA, Director, Office of Civil Rights, Room 326-W, Whitten Building, 1400 Independence Avenue, SW, Washington, DC 20250-9410 or call (202) 720-5964 (voice and TDD). USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.”

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Outline of State of Illinois with GrassSpecies
Cool-Season Perennial Legume

Kura Clover

Illinois

General Information

Kura clover (Trifolium ambiguum Bieb.) is a relatively low-growing, persistent, winter-hardy, spreading perennial legume that has excellent potential for grazing. It is also called Caucasian, Pellett’s, or honey clover and is native to the Caucasian region of Europe. Kura clover mixes well with the commonly grown cool-season, perennial grasses.

Varieties include Cossack, Endura, and Rhizo. In addition, much seed on the market is uncertified, “variety not stated”. 

Adaptability

Kura clover can often withstand poorly drained soils, soils with a high water table, and is better adapted to lower fertility and pH than alfalfa. However, it will be more productive and persistent if fertilized and grown at a soil pH of 6 to 7. Its fertility and pH requirements are very similar to those of red clover. Once established, it is adapted to frequent grazing or cutting.

Characteristics

Kura clover has a deep, branching taproot and produces rhizomes, which allow it to spread. The above ground portions are very leafy and high in feed value.

The main disadvantage is it’s slow establishment due to it’s pattern of development being different from other legumes. The seedlings germinate, emerge, and develop the first three true leaves at about the same rate as other legumes, but then leaf development slows and energy from photosynthesis is used for root and rhizome development. In addition, very few upright stems are formed the first year and thus its short stature makes it very susceptible to shading. It may take up to 2-3 years to get a vigorous stand.

Kura clover is susceptible to potato leafhopper injury and can induce bloat in ruminants. Because of these two characteristics and its low fiber, high protein and high moisture content, kura clover should be planted in mixture with cool-season perennial grasses. Grasses will also help keep the semi-prostrate legume upright.

Establishment

There are no “tricks” to establishing kura clover. The same steps recommended for the establishment of other legumes apply, but kura clover is less forgiving if these steps are not carefully followed.

Kura clover seed must be inoculated with strains of Rhizobia bacterium specific for the legume. Failure to put live Rhizobia in contact with young kura clover seedlings will result in certain failure of the stand.

Soil test a year before seeding so fertility and pH can be at the recommended levels. Perennial weeds, especially Canada thistle, need to be controlled a year prior to seeding.

In the spring, prepare a seedbed with appropriate tillage to provide a firm seedbed free of clods and weeds.

Kura clover has been successfully seeded into pastures with no-till strategies, provided the existing sod is killed with glyphosate (Roundup). It is best to apply glyphosate the previous fall and then no-till seed kura clover and the desired grass in the spring.

An option for no-till seeding is to use Gramoxone Extra (paraquat) to temporarily burn down existing grass in the spring and seed the kura clover immediately following. The existing grass will recover within 3 to 5 weeks and must then be controlled by grazing or clipping to minimize competition. This system will only work if summer rainfall is “normal” and if the grass regrowth is controlled.

Successful stands have been established with a seeding rate of 5 to 8 pounds per acre. If seedbed conditions are not ideal, use the higher rate. A shallow planting is important and the ideal depth is ΒΌ to 1 inch. Cultipacker seeders or drills with presswheels can be adjusted for proper sowing depth and packing to ensure good seed-to-soil contact.

University of Wisconsin researchers have successfully grown and maintained mixtures of kura clover with Kentucky bluegrass, smooth bromegrass, orchardgrass, tall fescue, and reed canarygrass. The appropriate grass will depend upon soil conditions, the intended use of the mixture, and skill in managing some of the aggressive grasses.

Because of its relatively slow seedling development and sensitivity to competition from existing vegetation, frost seeding of kura clover is very risky and not suggested.

Management

As a result of having rhizomes, individual plants can spread from 6 to 12 inches per year after successful establishment.

Once established, greatest yields occur in the spring, less in the summer and fall. Forage yields in University of Minnesota and University of Wisconsin trials ranged from 2 to 6 tons per acre, with an average of about 4 tons per acre. Yield from seeding and second year in University of Illinois trials was 2 and 4 tons of dry matter per acre, respectively.

A recent University of Wisconsin grazing study found that pounds of beef per acre and average daily gain were 911 and 2.66 for Kura clover-grass versus 714 and 2.27 for red clover-grass pastures, respectively. Stocking rate expressed as number of 600-pound steers per acre per day over the season was 2.3 for kura clover-grass and 2.0 for red clover-grass pastures. This translates into a 15% greater carrying capacity for the kura clover-grass pastures. In this study, the kura clover-grass mixture had average crude protein that ranged from 22 to 25%, average digestibility was 85%, and neutral detergent fiber ranged from 34 to 37%.

Summary

Kura clover may be an option for producers in the upper Midwest who need a persistent, winter-hardy legume. Management is critical in the establishment of this grazing tolerant, high quality forage crop. Once established, kura clover will tolerate much abuse and has persisted greater than 15 years in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Where to Get Help

For more information about kura clover contact the local office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service or University of Illinois Extension.

Acknowledgements

Information in this fact sheet was adapted from a number of sources, but primarily based upon work by Dr. Ken Albrecht, agronomist, University of Wisconsin-Madison.


The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) prohibits discrimination in all its programs and activities on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age, disability, political beliefs, sexual orientation, or marital or family status. (Not all prohibited bases apply to all programs.) Persons with disabilities who require alternative means for communication of program information (Braille, large print, audio tape, etc.) should contact USDA’s TARGET Center at 202-720-2600 (voice and TDD).

To file a complaint of discrimination, write USDA, Director, Office of Civil Rights, Room 326-W, Whitten Building, 1400 Independence Avenue, SW, Washington, DC 20250-9410 or call (202) 720-5964 (voice and TDD). USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.”

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Outline of State of Illinois with GrassSpecies
Cool-Season Grass

Ladino Clover

Illinois

General Information

White Clovers can be classified in three general groups: small, intermediate and large. Ladino belongs to the large group.

Ladino Clover is sown primarily with grass for pasture, but also used as hay or silage.

On an experimental basis, good stands of clover were established in a heavy fescue sod by over seeding one pound of ladino clover seed per acre for two consecutive years. No-till was used, but seed was sown during January and February so that freezing and thawing worked the seed into the soil.

Adaptability

Ladino Clover will grow in soils considered too acid for red clover and alfalfa, but is more productive if the pH is 5.5 or higher.

Ladino Clover needs adequate phosphorus and potassium for establishment and growth, and is especially responsive to cool, moist conditions.

Ladino Clover grows best between 50 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and responds to irrigation about as much as any other legume. The shallow root system does not adapted to shallow, droughty soils.

Characteristics

Ladino Clover is a creeping plant with long basal runners that usually root at the nodes.

All of the leaflets rise from the horizontal stems on long stalks. The leaves and stalks are smooth and without hairs.

The flowers arise on single stalks from the basal runners, and are typically white or pink.

The primary roots and stems of white clover usually die before the second year. The plant is perpetuated by the root systems developed at the nodes along the horizontal stems. 

Establishment

Check with the Natural Resources Conservation Service or University Extension for proper seeding rates.

The seeds should be spread on a clean, firm seedbed, covered lightly, and can be planted with a cultipacker seeder, a grassland drill, or by broadcasting.

The seed should be inoculated with a commercial culture that is specific for white clover. Double the amount recommended on the container.

Management

Ladino clover is primarily not a hay crop. When used as hay, the field should be cut when the companion grasses will make the highest quality hay.

Restrict or temporarily exclude grazing during the spring to allow seed production. Graze companion grasses close during the fall to permit young clover seedlings to become established. Manage the pasture to maintain the stand and vigor of the companion grass so that it will afford at least half of the available forage to minimize the danger of bloat.

When harvesting seed, cut mature plants with a mower when most heads are brown. Cure in the swath or windrow, and thresh with a pick-up combine.

The average seed yield is 75 to 100 pounds of seed per acre. Yields may be increased by using bees for pollination.

If managed for wildlife -as food for deer, wild turkeys and rabbits -benefits are maximized by controlled grazing by domestic livestock.

Where to Get Help

For more information about Ladino clover, contact the local office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service listed in the telephone directory under “U.S. Government,” or the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service.


The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) prohibits discrimination in all its programs and activities on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age, disability, political beliefs, sexual orientation, or marital or family status. (Not all prohibited bases apply to all programs.) Persons with disabilities who require alternative means for communication of program information (Braille, large print, audio tape, etc.) should contact USDA’s TARGET Center at 202-720-2600 (voice and TDD).

To file a complaint of discrimination, write USDA, Director, Office of Civil Rights, Room 326-W, Whitten Building, 1400 Independence Avenue, SW, Washington, DC 20250-9410 or call (202) 720-5964 (voice and TDD). USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.”

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