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Finding a Cost Effective, Persistent Legume for Pastures

By   /  February 17, 2014  /  2 Comments

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Is there a legume that establishes and yields well, persists in pasture, and is cost-effective for the producer?  That’s the question that Jim Munsch, owner of Deer Run Farm in Wisconsin, set out to answer with a 3-year on-farm research project followed by two more years of observation.  As he notes in the video below, by doing some very simple and inexpensive renovations on test paddocks, he increased their dry matter yield by 20-25%, and because of the legume content, he increased the amount of nutrients being grown as well.  Based on the dollars per pound of gain he saw he found the results to be very cost-effective.

What is a LegumeThe Value of Legumes

Legumes fix atmospheric nitrogen, providing a source of fertility for organic farmers, and a way to reduce costs for non-organic farmers tired of purchasing fertilizers.  They are also typically higher in crude protein, and more easily digested than pasture grasses, so they add a lot to the nutrient value of pastures.  Mixed grass and legumes provide higher dry matter yields than grass pastures, and maintain their nutritional value longer through the growing season.

The On Farm Research Program

Munsch’s pastures in southwestern Wisconsin are 15 to 25 years old and have been supporting his cow calf operation under managed grazing that whole time.  He typically used red clover varieties that had to be reseeded every 3 years, so finding a more persistent alternative legume meant that he could reduce costs and increase profits.  He began his on-farm research project in 2005 to compare pastures seeded with orchard grass, tall fescue and soft-leaf tall fescue alone, and with Kopu II white clover and Kura clover (Kura clover is a distinct species and is neither red not white.)  The Research Brief on this project describes the pasture treatments:

Kopu II white clover photo courtesy of Ampac seeds.

Kopu II white clover photo courtesy of Ampac seeds.

“In 2005, Munsch selected two paddocks that had been grazed heavily the previous year, and frost seeded one with kura clover and the other with Kopu II white clover. Two additional paddocks were renovated through minimum tillage with a disk, leaving about 30 percent cover from existing stands of orchardgrass, meadow fescue, Kentucky bluegrass, timothy, red clover and some alfalfa. The renovated paddocks were hand seeded with soft-leaf tall fescue and either kura clover or white clover; this was followed by dragging. One control paddock remained in Munsch’s regular management program of reseeding red clover every three years to provide a comparison to the treated pastures. Frost seeded and control paddocks were grazed five times in the establishment year and renovated paddocks three times. All five paddocks were adjacent to each other and had similar soil nutrient levels, and no soil nutrient additives were made. Data collection started the following year.”

Kura clover photo courtesy of Midwest Cover Crops Council.

Kura clover photo courtesy of Midwest Cover Crops Council.

Forage yields in the renovated white clover paddocks were 21% greater than yields in the control paddock, and 15% greater in the frost-seeded pastures.  Three years later, the frost-seeded pasture yields were equal to the renovated pastures’.  The Kura clover did not establish or grow well in renovated pastures, and was almost non-existent in frost-seeded pastures, likely because it is very sensitive to competition when establishing.  Dry conditions affected the performance of both clovers, though they did survive.

What’s it Cost?

The table below shows the costs for the work that Jim Munsch did on his pastures.  Costs per ton of forage for the white clover and control paddocks were similar.  But the 15 to 21 percent increase in yield of the clover paddocks also translates into being able to support 15 to 21 percent more animals, or to being able to extend the grazing season by stockpiling forage.  Again, the cost per ton of stockpiled feed comes in much lower than the cost of purchased feed.

Costs of Clover seeding and renovation

Is It For You?

Here’s what Jim Munsch says:  “When I was a kid, farmers tried stuff all the time.  There are some farmers that are still into the mold and this is something for them to try.”   That said, you should contact your local NRCS, Resource Conservation District or Cooperative Extension staff to talk about clovers in your area.  (Or try googling the words “pasture legumes” preceded by the state where you live for a quick look at possible varieties to consider.)

Jim Munsch talks about his project:

Editors Note:  This research wouldn’t have been possible without the support of grants from CSREES, GLCI, and the work of University of Wisconsin faculty Jim Lehmkuhler and Ken Albrecht.  

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About the author

editor and contributor

Kathy worked with the Bureau of Land Management for 12 years before founding Livestock for Landscapes in 2004. Her twelve years at the agency allowed her to pursue her goal of helping communities find ways to live profitably AND sustainably in their environment. She has been researching and working with livestock as a land management tool for over a decade. When she's not helping farmers, ranchers and land managers on-site, she writes articles, and books, and edits videos to help others turn their livestock into landscape managers.

2 Comments

  1. Dave Scott says:

    Jim, could you tell us what your seeding rate was for the soft leaf fescue, and white clover, please?
    Also, have you tried even lighter discing so that 60-70% of the grass cover is left and then only seeding the white clover, or is that too hard to do?

    Thank you, Dave

  2. Jess Jackson Jr. Grazing Specialist NRCS Iowa says:

    Iowa State Univ. research says Kura Clover must be drilled in and innoculated to have a chance and they recommend 8 pounds per acre plus expect 3 years to establish. I’ve been watching 1 plot in Eastern Iowa for 5 years and it’s going gangbusters. Good job of trying something new. Has Jim let the pastures rest for 50 days at a stretch to let red clover go to seed to see if it will naturally reseed?

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