Adding Legumes to Pasture

A pasture containing significant level of legume plants has a number of advantages over a pure grass pasture. Legumes provide nitrogen to promote grass growth, provide high quality forage, and some of the legumes are deep rooted and have some tolerance for the warm dry conditions we generally experience in August.

Productive pastures require regular maintenance. Rotation is one very effective way to improve pasture productivity. Improving the species mix in the pasture is also important. Legumes are the most beneficial species to include in a pasture sward.

There are many advantages to including legumes:

  • Legumes add nitrogen to the soil that encourages grass growth as well as supporting legume growth.
  • Legumes have more consistent production during the mid summer period. The grasses grow well during May and June but July and August production is decreased. Legumes, particularly alfalfa and trefoil, continue to grow during July and August.
  • Legumes hold their feed quality longer than grass species. This assists in keeping the pasture quality more consistent throughout the summer grazing season.

The four most common legumes used in Ontario pastures are: alfalfa, white clover, trefoil and red clover. Alfalfa in the most productive of these species but also has several drawbacks. Establishment of alfalfa requires excellent seed to soil contact and very little competition during the seedling stage. Most pastures with a significant level of alfalfa are established through conventional seeding - either planting into a tilled seed bed or no-tilling into a killed sod.

Picture of clover and alfalfa

Figure 1. Clover and alfalfa in a dense pasture sward

The clovers and trefoil can be established in a similar manner as the alfalfa or they can be frost seeded or over seeded into the pasture. In an established pasture this is your easiest and likely best option to increase the legume content. Frost seeding is done by broadcasting seeds on frozen ground in late winter or early spring. The best success had been reported with white clover, red clover and trefoil using this method. 1-3 lbs of seed per acre is the generally accepted seeding rate, although there are no hard and fast rules as to the amount, (white clover 1 lb/acre, trefoil 2-3 lb/acre and red clover 3-5 lb/acre).

The seed should be broadcast when the ground is still frozen - the freeze/thaw action during the spring will help to establish seed to soil contact. This broadcasting can be done with a broadcast seeder on an ATV or snowmobile.

Results are not always evident in the first year, but by the 2nd season you will generally see an increase in the legume content of your pasture. White clover and trefoil can also be mixed in the mineral/salt during the grazing season. The livestock will then spread the seeds across the pasture in their manure. This method may not be as effective but it is low cost.

Increasing the legume content of a pasture will significantly improve the productivity of the pasture and the livestock grazing the pasture.

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