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Warm Season, Cool Season, Legumes, and Annuals Minimize

No doubt most graziers know that I am a strong proponent of legumes in my pasture stand. Maybe that comes from many years of watching my legumes produce high quality forage back during my conventional years of dairy farming.


Since we call ourselves grass farmers there is also an important reason why grasses are a part of our pasture mix. Back in the early 1980’s I developed a 10 acre field of Warm Season Grasses including Switch Grass and Indian Grass. They were slow to develop but over time they did become beautiful examples of what warm season grasses can look like. The challenge for us as we began rotational grazing in 1992 was that the warm season grasses couldn’t be grazed early or late in the season and the short window of utilization here in Indiana didn’t make them a sound economic selection.


My very first grazing of the dairy herd back in 1992 was on alfalfa-orchardgrass mixtures that were formally used for hay or haylege in my confinement dairy. All of my new pasture establishments since that time have included legumes. Early on alfalfa was a large part of my pasture mix and I did several experiments with the early grazing varieties of alfalfa along with my orchardgrass or bromes.


As I began improving my stands in existing pastures red clover became a part of my seed mixture and it quickly became the dominant forage in the mix. My observations showed that the new seedling alfalfa plants struggled to survive beyond the seeding year either because of alelopathy or lack of seedling vigor while the clover plants grew quickly and flourished. Alfalfa really didn’t reach grazing height until well after orchardgrass had passed it’s prime grazing period and clovers were much closer in that relationship.  That and seed cost quickly designated red clover as the most cost effective legume to add to the pasture mix.


I have used a Brookside Laboratories agronomy consultant since 1984 and early in my grazing experience they recommended up to 150 units of nitrogen in three applications on my pastures during the grazing season to improve the grass production. My nitrogen source has always been Ammonium Sulfate due to a need to add sulfur on this farm.  I’ve always been one to use check strips and we soon realized that short of a slightly greener color, the production didn’t seem to be more in the highly increased N areas over the small check strips. I will admit that I didn’t do as much pasture yield evaluation then as I do now but visual observations by myself and other forage specialists didn’t notice much difference. In 1994 we decided to do a test and split thirty small paddocks each into three test strips where in two applications they received 150 units 75 units and 0 units of N. This was carried out for three years and the only difference observed after the three seasons was that by a count there were less legumes in the areas of 150 units on N with no difference between the other two. That test convinced me and my consultant that nitrogen was a poor investment when legumes were at least 50% of the visual stand.  All of these experiments were in sandy loam soils.


We also have 40 acres of muck soils. In 1993 we seeded them to Reeds Canary grass and a combination of alsike clover and birdsfoot trefoil.  Plants were slow to establish and the alsike seemed to establish first so the first two years we were very content with that mix.


Alsike is a true bi-annual and within two years it had nearly disappeared. I have made several attempts to reestablish alsike with no success.  Since muck soils are high in organic matter it is possible to draw nitrogen for the organic matter but through experimentation we did find nitrogen beneficial there. In fact two years when we were quite droughty the reeds canary grass was our drought insurance with plenty of added nitrogen.


On the new rented farm we have about 80 acres of lowland soils of which about 60 are muck. Those areas were seeded to Reeds Canary grass along with Kura clover in 2002.


Since it’s slow to establish it wasn’t apparent if we had a good stand when the July 4th flood destroyed it in 2003 but we have reestablished the fields and hope to have some ideas on its benefits soon. I have seen nice stands of Kura in Michigan and Wisconsin and assume it will do well in Indiana as well. 


The balance of the new leased farm is seeded with high levels of legumes.  With old corn fields to establish we finally had a chance to see what some of the new Ladino clovers could do as a major portion of the stand and after one season of good grazing we are quite impressed. I was slightly challenging due to bloat issues in 2003 because the grass was slow to establish. But in 2004 the grass has developed and keeps bloat issues at a minimum.


With nitrogen prices being based on petroleum prices I’d expect Ammonium Sulfate to be over $150 a ton this season. That means 100 units would cost about $37 an acre. 8# of red clover at $2 a pound and 2# of Ladino at $3 a pound is $24 an acre and that should provide a 60% stand in grass pasture of brome, Orchardgrass or fescue.  Add the cost of a no-till drill and your first year cost is about the same as 100 units of N. The value comes the second and third year when no additional seed is needed. My Pasture Tracker software tells me we’re getting over 6 ton of dry matter without the use of nitrogen on those acres. While that $37 an acre would buy only ½ ton of hay I don’t believe our yields in our upland soils would increase by that much.


As our herd has grown in numbers we have done more damage to the paddocks we over-winter on. Originally we would just no-till additional grasses and legumes into those areas and the paddocks would re-establish well. Now we are tilling those paddocks and using summer annuals to utilize the fertility that has accumulated over winter as well as give us an opportunity to develop new stands of our grass-legume mixtures.


The annual we have worked with the most is BMR Sorghum-Sudan cross. We establish in Mid May after tillage and either graze or make baleage from the growth. This past year we also utilized a mixture of oats and turnips seeded in mid August. Although a longer season would be better we did see excellent growth and feed value from the mixture and grazed it well into November.


Perennial Ryegrass has not done as well in our system as it has been reported to do for others. Perhaps our droughty soils have an impact but, we don’t seem to get much summer growth and the good spring and fall growth don’t add enough value for the higher quality forage over our orchardgrass.