It’s the time of the year to be thinking on ways to improve already established pastures. With the price of nitrogen these days, interseeding legumes could be one answer.
"Right now with Nitrogen fertilizer prices extremely high, we need to be able to cut back and reduce those costs. Legumes offer help with Nitrogen fixing for other forages and can cut back on how much overall Nitrogen we need to put on our pastures," said Ken Coffey, professor of beef cow/calf nutrition at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, Ark.
The big advantage from a cattle nutrition standpoint, Coffey explained, is legumes are typically higher in protein than grass, so they serve as a good source of supplemental protein. "In northwest Arkansas they will dilute out tall fescue toxins, and (again) they help provide some nitrogen to the other forages," he said.
But interseeding legumes in Arkansas is not always a problem-free solution to high fertilizer prices.
"Typically our soils are going to have a low pH, and legumes need a higher pH. Some legumes will do better on our soil, though, like serecia lespedeza, or lespedeza itself.  However, serecia lespedeza has problems with tannins that can reduce cattle preference and digestibility.
Soil testing is the place to start to determine pH, and also looking at soil maps to give descriptions of soil type is important. On some hillsides around here you may be able to get legumes established, but without care and maintenance in the summer time they tend to die out, particularly with spring seeded legumes, Coffey warned.
The problem many producers have is deciding what legume to interseed.  The answer will likely end up different for each operation.
“Red clover and Alslike clovers tend to be short-lived perennials and produce well over a relatively short period of time,” Justin Burns, Forage Specialist with Pennington Seed, recommended.  “Ladino clovers extend their cycle over a slightly longer period of time.”  White clovers usually last the longest due to an increase in grazing and drought tolerance.
“Alfalfa is a perennial cool season legume that produces high quality forage over a short period of time,” Burns said.  Like clover, alfalfa will come back from the roots for several years.  
“Annual Lespedeza is a warm season legume that will produce forage for one year and then die out,” Burns said.
Burns tells producers there are three things they should take a close look at when considering a legume to interseed: production, life span and cost per acre.
“After identifying which type of legume best fits, a producer should then research varieties within that category to find which one matches their budget and most importantly their expectations,” Burns advised.  This information can be found at a local university extension office, websites or from the varietie's manufacturer.
The number one thing producers need to decide is what they want from a legume.  If a producer wants a persistent and grazing tolerant clover that provides high quality forage and reduces input costs, Burns proposed White cover.  “For those producers wanting to better manage and reduce costs on property used for a combination of haying and grazing I would strongly recommend a highly persistent Ladino Clover.”  But if you need a short transition hay crop that produces high yields with a cool season grass, Burns tells producers Red clover is a great choice.
Coffey said that with good stands of legumes, you’re individual animal gains will go up because legumes are higher in quality than the grasses themselves. "But typically because of reduced Nitrogen fertilizer applications, you get lower forage production overall," he said.
Increased production should be considered a longer term benefit rather than something producers will need to be expecting right away, he said.
It can be possible and profitable to establish legumes in northwest Arkansas' pastures, but producers need to be ready for the challenges they may bring. Coffey recommends visiting with your local extension staff, who will know your area and your soil types.


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