Legume Grazing

 Knowledge Nuggets | Fact Sheets | Research Papers

Knowledge Nuggets

  • Grazing legumes requires top-notch management to ensure optimal stand persistence and animal performance. As with any high-value crop, greater economic return is generally achieved with a higher level of management.
  • With the development of alfalfa cultivars selected specifically for grazing tolerance, some of the management emphasis on stand persistence is diminished, but persistence must remain a prime concern.
  • Although alfalfa may be a legume widely chosen for grazing there are other legume choices that may also work well or even be seeded with alfalfa. Examples are: Sainfoin, cicer milk vetch, birdsfoot trefoil, alsike clover, red clover, white clover, kura clover, sweet clover, purple or white prairie clover. These less used legumes may not have the yields of alfalfa but may better suit the land site or management system used for grazing.
  • Legumes like sainfoin, birdsfoot trefoil, purple prairie clover and white prairie clover contain the plant product "tannins" which prevents bloat. If these tannin containing legumes are seeded in a pasture with bloat causing legumes like alfalfa they will "actively" reduce bloat risk. The legume cicer milk vetch does not have tannins but is slower to digest so will not cause bloat.
  • Proper soil site selection, fertility management, insect pests, season of use, and appropriate grazing management affect stand persistence.
  • Stand damage, reduces regrowth potential, stand longevity and soil compaction through animal treading when grazing on soggy soils. Remove the animals to grass sodded paddocks when the legume paddocks become too wet to graze.
  • Soil pH, phosphorus, and potassium levels all affect legume establishment and persistence. Having proper soil nutrition at time of establishment and early stand development is important.
  • Livestock move large quantities of nutrients around the field through uneven manure redistribution. Greater than 90% of the mineral an animal consumes is excreted back to the soil. If the redistribution is not uniform, it tends to be concentrated around water, shade, and lounging areas.
  • The season of use for grazing alfalfa can be longer than that for hay harvest, if properly managed.
  • Grazing management includes regulating the amount of defoliation and length of the rest period. Typical mid-season rest periods are in 28 to 35 day range.
  • While alfalfa is recognized as a high quality forage, there are situations where alfalfa fails to produce the expected animal performance. Using alfalfa in combination with other forages can result in better performance than either crop gives alone.
  • There are several areas of concern regarding animal performance including bloat potential, seasonal variance in quality, day-to-day variance in quality, complementary forages, and appropriate supplementation.
  • To reduce bloat losses,
    • seed a grass or non-bloating legume of similar regrowth rate with the alfalfa
    • never allow the animals to stand hungry before turning them to a new paddock.
    • use multiple moves each day with a high stock density to force the stock to consume stems and leaves together
    • do not rotate alfalfa paddocks until midday to avoid morning dews or during rainfall.
  • Alfalfa is very high in degradable protein and low in fiber but may actually produce disappointing animal performance. Including grasses with the alfalfa in the pasture will enhance livestock performance.
  • Due to the high crude protein, low fiber nature of vegetative legumes, the most appropriate supplements are likely to be of high fiber and high energy.
Fact Sheets

Bloat on Legume Pastures

Controlling Bloat in Cattle - available in PDF format only

Foamy Pasture Bloat - available in PDF format only

Grazing Alfalfa - available in PDF format only

Grazing Alfalfa - available in PDF format only

Kura Clover: A New Pasture Legume for Ontario?

Measuring Legume Content in Pastures Using Digital Photographs

Pasture Bloat in Cattle and Other Ruminants Cause Occurrence and Mitigation Strategies - available in PDF only

Pasture Legumes Identified

Prevention of Pasture Bloat in Grazing Alfalfa - available in PDF format only

Principle and Practice for Successful Grazing of Alfalfa

Research Papers

Above and below-ground competition between Kura clover (Trifolium ambiguum) and meadow brome grass (Bromus biebersteinii): A greenhouse study - available in PDF format only

Addition of white clover to orchardgrass pasture improves the performance of grazing lambs, but not herbage production - available in PDF format only

A review of the development of a bloat - reduced alfalfa cultivar - available in PDF format only

Bloat in cattle grazing alfalfa cultivars selected for a low initial rate of digestion: A review - available in PDF format only

Effect of grazing mixtures of alfalfa and orchardgrass grown in strips on the incidence of bloat in cattle - available in PDF format

Enhancing pasture productivity with alfalfa: A review - available in PDF format only

Grazing tolerance of alfalfa (Medicago spp.) under continuous and rotational stocking systems in pure stands and in mixture with meadow bromegrass - available in PDF format only

The effect of feeding hay before fresh alfalfa on the occurrence of frothy bloat in cattle - available in PDF format only
  For more information about the content of this document, contact Grant Lastiwka.
This information published to the web on September 3, 2003.
Last Reviewed/Revised on February 28, 2018.

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