Benefits of Legumes

Reducing pasture expenses can help your bottom line.  But don’t try to starve a profit from your pastures.  Sometimes you need to invest.  This spring, invest in legumes.

Warm weather should get you looking forward to spring.  I’m sure one thing you won’t look forward to, though, is paying for nitrogen fertilizer on your pastures.

One way to avoid this expense is by adding legumes to your grazingland.  Five years of grazing research in eastern Nebraska showed that brome/legume pastures produced almost four-tenths of a pound higher average daily gain on yearlings than did straight brome pastures fertilized with 50 pounds of nitrogen.

That may not sound like a lot to you, but that much faster gain for the full season produced an extra fifty-one pounds of beef per acre, with no nitrogen fertilizer.  Adding the value of heavier yearlings plus reduced fertilizer expenses can result in nice amount of profit, especially with the extra high fertilizer prices this year. Similar research was conducted with warm-season grasses with nearly the same results.

March is a good month to start adding legumes. Red clover is the easiest one to establish because seed can be applied by a general broadcasting. Before seeding, check out your soil fertility.  While clovers can handle acidic soils, they establish best with a pH no lower than 6.5.  Depending on your soil, phosphorus and potassium may be lacking as well and need a boost.  However, do not apply additional nitrogen, as this will only stimulate competition from surrounding grasses. If broadcasting a rate of 4-8 lb. per acre is recommended from trials done by the University of Wisconsin.  A no-till drill may be a more reliable option for stand establishment this late in the spring by ensuring good soil/seed contact.  Set openers to ½ inch and seed at a rate of 8-10 lb. per acre.  

In either case, limiting competition from established plants is critical to success.  Graze or clip the pasture to a height of 1-2 inches prior to seeding.  If grazing, allowing cattle continued access until seedlings emerge can actually be beneficial, but remove them as soon as you notice new growth.  You can graze the pasture again once clover begins blooming.  This will benefit the stand in two ways.  First, by opening up the canopy and continuing to suppress competition from surrounding plants and second by keeping the clover in a vegetative state, encouraging tillering.

Once established, grazing management will increase legume yields and longevity in the stand.  Rotational grazing is critical to maintain legumes, as cattle are less selective, harvesting both legume and grass when grazing instead of picking out the higher quality legume. Grazing then resting also provides an open canopy and room for growth during the critical rest periods.

This year, don’t become trapped by the never ending cost of nitrogen fertilizer.  Use legumes to reduce costs and increase production in your pastures.

-Ben Beckman is a beef systems Extension Educator serving the counties of Antelope, Cedar, Knox, Madison and Pierce.  He is based out of the Cedar County Extension office in Hartington.  You can reach him by phone: (402) 254-6821 or email: .