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Add Legumes to Fescue Pastures for Better Profits

STOCKTON, Mo. – Cattle producers see more profit when they add legumes to fescue pastures and manage grazing systems properly, says Patrick Davis, University of Missouri Extension livestock specialist.

Fescue remains the hardy mainstay of southwestern Missouri pastures. Adding legumes gives fescue fields more nutritional punch and profit, Davis says.

Proper management is key to making grasses and legumes work well together, he says. This begins with management-intensive grazing (MIG).

Under MIG, cattle graze on forage 3 to 8 inches tall. Cattle begin grazing at 8 inches and eat forage down to 3 inches. This is followed by paddock rest until the forage reaches original height. This strategy promotes stronger roots and gives cattle best-quality forage, Davis says. Forage in this range also contains less ergovaline, a toxic alkaloid. The highest concentrations of ergovaline are in the bottom 2 inches of the plant and seed heads.

Add legumes into fescue pastures for other benefits. Pasture quality improves and the amount of toxic fescue is diluted.

“Proper incorporation and management of legume species, including red and white clover or lespedeza, is important for their persistence into your fescue sod,” Davis says.

Two seeding options are frost seeding and no-till drilling. Contact your local MU Extension agronomy specialist for advice on seeding methods or download the MU Extension guide “Seeding Rates, Dates and Depths for Common Missouri Forages” at

To persist, legumes need time to grow without fescue competition and grazing pressure. Proper MIG allows both, says Davis. After grazing, allow a four- to five-week rest period for young legume plants.

Test soil before planting. Soil pH should be above 6.0 for red and white clover and above 5.5 for lespedeza. Local MU Extension centers can advise on proper soil testing procedures and fertility.

“Legumes are higher quality than grasses because of the lower stem-to-leaf ratio,” Davis says. “This results in lower neutral detergent fiber and increased protein concentrations.” This combination improves forage intake, cattle performance and profit potential, he says.

Total pasture legume coverage should be about 30 percent. If coverage is above 50 percent, potential for cattle bloat increases.

Davis gives these tips to reduce cattle bloat potential:

-Restrict grazing and give cattle time to adapt to the legume field.

-Provide cattle dry hay before turning them out to legume pasture to reduce legume intake.

-Provide poloxalene to cattle through bloat blocks or other ways of supplementation.

Contact the MU Extension livestock or agronomy specialist in your area for more information. Information on how to improve your grasslands is also available at