10 reasons to consider forage mixes

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REYNOLDSBURG, Ohio — During the Ohio Forage and Grassland Council conference Feb. 3, Kim Cassida, forage Extension specialist from Michigan State University, offered these 10 reasons to use forage mixtures.

  1. Improved yield
    Grass and legumes complement each other and offer different growing habits. This provides a slow-developing root structure.
  2. Nitrogen fixation
    “Everyone wants that slow-releasing nitrogen,” said Cassida. “Legume roots provide that built-in release. Adding nitrogen to a legume mix only decreases the biological release of the system.” Cassida recommends using a mixture of 25-50 percent legumes to get that desired slow-release nitrogen. Don’t use more than 50 percent legumes if you plan to graze the pasture because it can cause bloat.
  3. Improved seasonal forage distribution
    Using a mix creates a more even stand, but takes time to get to that point.
  4. Improved hay drying rate
    Grass stems are thicker and helps keep the hay fluffy and quicker to dry.
  5. Improved digestibility and feeding value
    Ruminants require effective fiber, but not too much. Fiber encourage cows to chew, keeping their ruminant pH up, said Cassida. Grasses provide more fiber than alfalfa, can be digested faster and provide a greater source of energy, she said.
  6. Pest control
    When grasses are mixed with alfalfa, it makes it harder for pests to find the alfalfa. The diverse forage stand is more vigorous and is also more resistant to weeds. A mixture also provides a preferred habitat for beneficial insects and encourages better soil health.
  7. Erosion control
    A good ground cover and root structure helps reduce rain impact and increase water filtration. Fibrous grass roots are concentrated near the surface.
  8. Improved stand persistence
    “Mixtures buffer the risk of a catastrophic failure because there is an increased chance of something surviving the harsh condition,” said Cassida.
  9. Reduces bloat risk
    Diluting the mixture to 50 percent legumes in a pasture that is being grazed reduces the risk of bloating. According to Cassida, Birdsfoot trefoil is the only legume that does not cause bloat.
  10. Root diversity improved soil health
    Different soil microbes and macrofauna are attracted to different roots and residues. Mixing up the pasture blend creates a more active soil food web.

Challenges

Like any farming practice, using a forage mix does come with its share of challenges, especially for those trying mixes for the first time.

Management: One of the biggest challenges to incorporating mixes is management. Too much shade restricts the growth of legumes and adding nitrogen decreases the legumes ability to release its own nitrogen. Producers should also consider having a grazing system in place to control how much the animals are able to consume at a time.

Weed control: There are no herbicides that will selectively remove weedy grass and broadleaf weeds from grass-legume mixes, said Cassida. She suggests: improving soil fertility, changing harvest management, using a wick for spot applications on tall weeds, mowing or top-clipping pastures or rotating mixed livestock species into the grazing schedule (different animals eat different weeds).

Harvest timing: Using a mixture can make harvest decisions more complex. Different components of the mixture usually mature at different times. Cassida suggests giving the biggest consideration to the most important component — usually the legumes — and to choose mixture components based on compatibility and maturity.

Ration balancing: “It is biologically impossible to maintain a constant proportion of species at a constant maturity in all mixtures all the time,” said Cassida.

Establishment: Cassida offers three options for planting legume-grass mixtures.

  • Option 1: mix and plant everything together and don’t worry about seed sorting in pastures.
  • Option 2: Plant components separately and enter the pasture differently for each pass.
  • Option 3: Add new components to established stands using a drill or frostseed or broadcast applications.

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