Perennial Legume and Grass Variety Selection for Michigan (E2787)

Perennial Legume and Grass Variety Selection for Michigan (E2787)

Forage is defined as “edible parts of plants, other than separated grain, that can provide feed for animals, or that can be harvested for feeding.” Over 2.5 million acres of Michigan farmland are dedicated to forage production.

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Forage is defined as “edible parts of plants, other than separated grain, that can provide feed for animals, or that can be harvested for feeding.” Over 2.5 million acres of Michigan farmland are dedicated to forage production. The total value of the forage harvested or grazed from this land is approximately $600 million. By acreage, forages are the No. 1 crop in the state. Perennial forage crops also help prevent soil erosion and protect water quality. In addition, forages create an appealing green landscape and open space across the state.

Many Michigan farmers are faced with equipment, land and labor costs that are increasing exponentially, while the value of the products sold off the farm gains slowly, holds steady or declines. Increasing the profit margin requires good management and improved varieties to increase yields.

Michigan State University has established more than 25 research trials in five locations across the state to evaluate management practices and varieties in an unbiased manner. Herbage yield, stand persistence and forage quality are the primary factors that are compared in these trials.

This publication summarizes performance data over the past several years for alfalfa, birdsfoot trefoil, clovers, forage chicory and cool-season grasses.

Evaluations of Alfalfa Varieties in Michigan

MSU has evaluated more than 90 commercially available alfalfa varieties in its variety trials since 1994. Plant breeders, developers and marketers submit both commercial and experimental alfalfa varieties to MSU for testing. Varieties in these trials are evaluated for herbage yield and stand persistence for at least three years. Alfalfa variety trials have been established at East Lansing in southern lower Michigan, Lake City in central northern Michigan and Sandusky in the Thumb.

More than 95 percent of the varieties entered are evaluated at East Lansing. Trials at East Lansing are usually two to three times larger than trials at other sites in the state. Yield is expressed as a percentage of a check variety (Vernal) averaged over two or three years for 98 alfalfa varieties evaluated at East Lansing from 1994 to 1999 (Table 1). Lake City data from 1996 to 1999 are provided in Table 2.

Selecting an appropriate alfalfa variety for an environment requires careful consideration. Herbage yield and stand persistence of a variety are only a part of establishing and maintaining an alfalfa stand. Good management practices are also important. Establish good stands on adequately drained soils. Adjust soil pH a full year prior to seeding. Fertilize before seeding and amend annually with phosphorus and potassium as recommended by soil tests. The appropriate cutting management system depends on the location, yield goal, forage quality desired and desired stand life. Even the best alfalfa variety will not perform well under poor management.

Three cuttings per year:

Cutting three times per year is the best system in Michigan for long-term stands with good yields if alfalfa is fertilized adequately with potassium. Forage quality in a three-cut system should be adequate for beef cows, dairy replacement heifers and dry cows but may be too high in fiber (over 40 percent NDF) for high-producing dairy cows. Alfalfa stands intended for long-term use (greater than five years) should not be cut more than three times per year. Alfalfa stands in northern Michigan should not be cut more than three times per year.

Recommended dates of the third and final cutting are different for northern and southern Michigan. Cutting schedules and approximate stages of maturity with three cuttings are:

Southern lower and central Michigan:

1st cutting — June 1-5 (early bloom)

2nd cutting — July 10-20 (1/10 bloom)

3rd cutting — August 25-October 15 (1/10 to full bloom)

Upper Peninsula and northern lower Peninsula:

1st cutting — June 10-20 (late bud to early bloom)

2nd cutting — July 25-August 15 (1/10 to 1/5 bloom)

3rd cutting — September 30-October 15 (1/10 to full bloom)

Four cuttings per year:

Four cuttings per year are recommended for the highest yields of high quality alfalfa for three- to five-year stands in southern lower Michigan. Four cuttings will usually produce 15 percent higher yields than the standard three-cut system and higher forage quality. Best results are achieved with excellent drainage and high fertility (phosphorus and, especially, potassium). Four cuttings per year are not recommended for areas in northern lower Michigan (north of Clare) or the Upper Peninsula because of the shorter growing season. A four-cut harvest schedule in northern Michigan may result in lower yields, decreased stand life and increased weed invasion after the first year. A four-cut schedule in southern Michigan will result in forage quality of 20 percent crude protein, 30 percent acid detergent fiber and 40 percent neutral detergent fiber (20-30-40). Alfalfa with a nutritive value of 20- 30-40 is ideal for high-producing dairy cows.

The cutting schedule for four cuts per year in southern Michigan (south of Clare) is:

1st cutting — late May-June 5 (late bud to very early bloom)

2nd cutting — July 5-15 (early bloom to 1/10 bloom)

3rd cutting — August 15-25 (early to 1/10 bloom)

4th cutting — mid- to late October (1/10 to full bloom; with little or no regrowth after cutting)

Selecting an Alfalfa Variety

For Short-term Stands — Up To Five Years

Most alfalfa stands in Michigan are left for three to four years. Varieties selected for short-term stands should be at least moderately winter hardy, high yielding, and resistant to bacterial wilt (BW) and anthracnose (AN). Resistance to Phytophthora root rot (PRR) is desirable when alfalfa is grown on finetextured soils prone to waterlogging.

For Long-term Stands — Over Five Years

Winter hardiness is of primary importance for longlived stands. Winter-hardy varieties may be slower to recover than moderately hardy varieties after a mid-September cutting. Compared with moderately hardy varieties, winter-hardy varieties may flower three to five days later in the first cutting. Winterhardy varieties may be lower in yield than moderately hardy varieties in three- to five-year stands but are usually higher yielding after about five years, especially in northern Michigan.

Select high-yielding winter-hardy varieties resistant to PRR for long-lived stands. Varieties in dormancy groups 1 and 2 (see column FD in tables 1 and 2) are more likely than moderately hardy varieties (dormancy groups 3 and 4) to establish “permanent” cover. Varieties in groups 3 and 4 have yielded higher than Vernal with similar persistence in the three- to seven-year trials at Lake City or Chatham in northern Michigan. They are considered winter hardy enough for long-term stands because of good survival at these northern locations.

For Pastures

Alfalfa varieties used in pastures should be selected for long-lived stands with resistance to Phytophthora root rot. Allowing adequate rest periods of 30 to 35 days between grazing cycles will enhance longevity of alfalfa for pastures. In addition, allowing a rest period in the fall will allow the alfalfa crop to store needed carbohydrates and proteins for better winter survival. Several commercial varieties are being marketed with improved tolerance to grazing. Alfalfa-grass mixtures in pastures will usually result in better meat and milk gains than grass alone. The grass component will also reduce the risks of bloat in ruminant animals. Alfalfa will provide needed nitrogen for the grass through nitrogen fixation.

Winter Hardiness and Fall Dormancy Ratings

Fall dormancy ratings are determined by the amount of regrowth after a mid-September cutting. The higher the rating, the more regrowth and the less winter hardy the variety is. Non-hardy varieties used in the western United States have ratings of 5, 6 or 7. Non-hardy alfalfa varieties are usually not well adapted for Michigan, even for short-term stands.

Important Diseases in Michigan

With the exception of new hybrid varieties, most common alfalfa varieties consist of a population of plants that are genetically different from one another. Varieties are described according to the mean response of all plants, such as average yield, and as a frequency of certain types of plants, such as the percentage of plants resistant to some pest or disease. Thus, even in a “resistant” variety, only a portion of the plants will be resistant. Moderate resistance, for example, means that 15 to 30 percent of the plants are resistant but 70 to 85 percent are susceptible. Even a variety classified as resistant may suffer damage from a disease. Moderate resistance is generally considered adequate for good alfalfa production. Even resistant varieties, however, are susceptible to PRR or Pythium diseases in the seedling stage. Table 17 contains a table of disease resistance ratings for varieties evaluated for yield at MSU.

Bacterial wilt (BW). BW is present throughout Michigan. All of the named varieties sold in Michigan are adequately resistant to BW. “Common” alfalfa varieties sold by some seed companies are not recommended because the seed may have come from susceptible plants.

Phytophthora root rot (PRR). This fungus disease, first found in Michigan in 1972, is now one of the state’s most important alfalfa diseases. PRR occurs on heavy or poorly drained soils. Alfalfa on any soil, however, when saturated during a rainy period of 7 to 10 days, may suffer severe injury, especially 1- to 2-month-old seedlings. Seed companies have been treating alfalfa seed with the fungicide Apron for several years. Seed treating with Apron may be helpful in improving stands of resistant varieties. Treating a susceptible variety, such as Vernal, is probably not helpful. Most of the highest yielding varieties entered in our tests were resistant to PRR.

Anthracnose (AN). This disease, first found in Michigan in 1976, is becoming more severe each year. It occurs during hot, moist summers and is most common in the southern third of lower Michigan. The fungus infects stems and crowns and may kill some plants. It is now recommended that only anthracnose-resistant varieties be planted in Michigan.

Verticillium wilt (VW). First detected in Michigan in 1982, VW has not increased in severity as expected. It is generally introduced with infected seed. It is usually not a problem until the third year and then primarily in the first cutting. Growing alfalfa for three to four years in rotation with corn will help break the disease cycle. Resistance to Verticillium wilt is recommended in alfalfa planted after alfalfa.

Important insects in Michigan

Two insects can significantly reduce yield in Michigan. The first is the alfalfa weevil, Hypera postica, which is more common in the first cutting. The adult is dark gray and approximately 0.2 inch long. It is the larva that causes crop damage. Larvae are pale green and very small in the first instar. They become darker green with a white stripe and prominent black head prior to pupation. The larvae are chewing insects that feed on interveinal tissue of the new growth. Control of this insect is usually attained through harvest, though insecticide treatments may be required in some years.

Potato leafhopper (PLH), Empoasca fabae, can greatly reduce alfalfa yields as well as forage quality and poses the greatest threat to second and third cuttings. Additional information about this pest is provided in the following pages.

Stem/bulb nematode, Ditylenchus dipsaci, is less common than these others, but it can potentially reduce older alfalfa stands. Stem nematode is a microscopic pest that occurs in the soil. Symptoms of nematode damage include stunted plants and clublike stems. Crop rotation is the best method for managing stem nematode.

Statistics Explained

The statistic that may be most useful is the average or mean. Comparing selected cultivars to the mean is a simple way to determine which is the best, though experimental error needs to be considered. The least significant difference (LSD) is the minimum value between means for a real difference to exist. This value is determined by observing the error between replications. The coefficient of variation (CV percent) may also be useful in determining the precision of a trial. The greater the variation within the trial, the higher the CV percent.

Evaluation of Alfalfa Varieties Resistant to Potato Leafhopper

Potato leafhopper (PLH) reduces alfalfa yield each year in Michigan. It is currently the most damaging insect to alfalfa production in Michigan. Carried north by air currents, this pest rains down on alfalfa fields in mid- to late June. It damages alfalfa by injecting a piercing mouthpart (stylet) into the stems and petioles. The insertion of the stylet and subsequent injection of toxic saliva result in a decreased flow of nutrients and eventually stunting. “Hopperburn” is the term used for the yellowing that occurs from leafhopper damage. Yield can be reduced greatly when sufficient numbers of PLH are present. (For information on insecticide control of potato leafhopper in alfalfa, consult your local Extension office.)

In 1997, several alfalfa seed marketers released “potato leafhopper-resistant” alfalfa varieties. The resistance levels of varieties released in 1997 varied greatly, but most were under 25 percent. Even alfalfa varieties resistant to potato leafhopper may benefit from insecticide applications, especially in the establishment year. Research is being conducted in other states to determine new economic thresholds for determining when to apply insecticides. Many of these varieties (commercial and experimental) were entered into variety trials established in East Lansing in 1997 and at Kellogg Biological Station (KBS) in 1998 and 1999. Since 1997, several varieties of alfalfa with increased resistance to potato leafhopper have been released. Varieties with increased resistance were established in 1998-99 trials at KBS. Yield data from that trial are presented in tables 3 and 4. No insecticide was applied to these trials. The potato leafhopperresistant alfalfa trial established in East Lansing in 1997 compares eight PLH-resistant varieties with four non-resistant check varieties under spray and no-spray management. Yields from this trial are reported in Table 5.

Birdsfoot trefoil

Birdsfoot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus L.) is a legume used for pasture and hay production that will grow in a wide variety of soil conditions. Birdsfoot trefoil may be the best forage species to use in pastures with poorly drained clay soils. The shallow, branching root system makes it less drought tolerant than alfalfa. Allowing birdsfoot trefoil to set seed will permit new seedlings to establish and thus extend trefoil persistence beyond 3 years. Bloat is not a problem for livestock grazing birdsfoot trefoil, perhaps because of the presence of tannin compounds that reduce foaming in the rumen.

A birdsfoot trefoil variety trial was established in East Lansing in 1998. Twelve varieties are being evaluated for yield (Table 6) and stand persistence. The variety Steadfast was bred for rhizome development. Birdsfoot trefoil will produce 60 percent of the yield of alfalfa in central Michigan; in northern Michigan, it yields 75 percent of alfalfa. In grazing trials comparing birdsfoot trefoil/bromegrass and alfalfa/bromegrass mixtures, there were no significant differences in animal weight gain over a three-year grazing trial at Lake City, Mich. In another grazing trial at the Kellogg Biological Station comparing birdsfoot trefoil/perennial ryegrass with alfalfa/perennial ryegrass, the alfalfa/perennial ryegrass resulted in greater animal weight gains per acre per year than birdsfoot trefoil/perennial ryegrass.

More information about growing birdsfoot trefoil may be obtained through your county Extension office. Ask for bulletin E-1745 or NCR 474.

Kura Clover, Ladino Clover, Red Clover and Legume Mixtures

Evaluations of red clover, kura clover, and mixtures of ladino, birdsfoot trefoil and alsike clovers were initiated in 1995 to evaluate the legumes for herbage yield, stand persistence and palatability under grazing conditions. The trials were planted at the Upper Peninsula Experiment Station, Chatham, Mich. In spring 1995, five varieties of red clover, mixtures of ladino plus birdsfoot trefoil, ladino plus birdsfoot trefoil plus red clover plus alsike, and ladino plus alsike plus red clover were seeded. In addition, a mixture of birdsfoot trefoil plus kura clover was compared with pure kura clover. The legumes were pure seedings without a grass. A grass/birdsfoot trefoil variety trial was used to supply grass, which prevented cattle from getting bloat from grazing pure legumes. The border of the trial was seeded with birdsfoot trefoil. Forage yield samples from within each plot were taken using a small quadrant (1/4-meter) prior to grazing. One sample was used to determine pregrazing yields; another yield sample was taken after grazing to determine amount of forage rejected by the animals. Holstein cows were used to graze the plots. The plots were grazed one replication at a time using an electric polywire break fence. The rest periods between grazing events were approximately 30 to 35 days. Kura clover is the only legume remaining after six years of grazing in this trial.

Red clover (Trifolium pratense L.) is a biennial or short-lived perennial that is well adapted to soils that are not adequately drained. In Michigan, red clover is often frost seeded into wheat stubble as a plow-down and may be grazed or harvested for silage. Red clover is also frost seeded into pastures for improved growth and production. Two to three hay crops per year are the norm for the medium red (early-flowering) type. Mammoth red (lateflowering) is also grown but usually produces only one cutting in Michigan. Red clover data are presented in Table 8.

Kura clover (Trifolium ambiguum Bieb.) is a rhizomatous, long-lived, perennial clover that has poor seedling vigor and grows slowly during the establishment year. It tolerates high soil moisture and low fertility levels, but during periods of drought kura clover will become dormant. Good stand persistence due to rhizomes (belowground vegetative shoots that give rise to new plants) makes this a desirable species for intensive grazing, but it must be in a grass mix to reduce bloating. A trial was established in Lake City in 1999 as a grazing trial with kura clover in a co-culture with seven grass species. Data from three grazing events in 2001 are presented in Table 9. In East Lansing, a standard variety trial (mechanically harvested) was seeded in 1999 to measure the yield of kura clover alone (Table 10). The East Lansing trial includes two varieties of birdsfoot trefoil (Steadfast, Norcen) and one mixture of alfalfa, birdsfoot trefoil and kura clover (Multigrazer 700) for comparison.

Ladino clover (Trifolium repens var. giganteum L.) is a large-type white clover with the greatest yields of all white clovers. Ladino clover is best suited for well drained clay and loam soils. Stolons (aboveground vegetative shoots that give rise to new plants) emanate from the crown of newly established ladino clover seedlings to form a carpet that makes it ideal for heavily grazed pastures. Ladino, like other types of white clover, has high bloat potential and should be grown with grasses. Rotational grazing with moderate nitrogen applications allows ladino clover to persist well in grass pastures.

 Alsike clover (Trifolium hybridum L.) is a short-lived perennial species that prefers cool, wet conditions and survives in soils with low fertility. The fine stems of alsike clover make it susceptible to lodging. Grass species with strong stems are usually grown with alsike clover to reduce bloat 18 Perennial Legume and Grass Forage Variety Selection for Michigan and lodging. Alsike clover is grown in Michigan in both pasture and hay production systems.

The results of the grazing trial are grouped into three tables according to species. Table 11 gives the intake yields of red clover varieties tested. There was no significant difference in yield between clover varieties in the seeding year and the second year of production. In 1997, Marathon red clover resulted in the largest yield, 2.42 tons/acre higher than common red clover. This is probably due to a better growth in the third year because of less root rot in this variety than in other varieties.

The results of mixtures of ladino white clover and other clovers are given in Table 12. When red clover was added to the mixtures, the yield increased approximately 1/2 ton per acre regardless of the mixture. This indicates the competitive nature of red clover. The comparison of Rhizo kura clover and the mixture of Rhizo and birdsfoot trefoil are given in Table 13.

There were no differences in yield between the mixture of birdsfoot trefoil/kura clover and kura clover alone. The kura clover plots were always the first to be selected by the animals, followed by ladino and red clovers.

Forage Chicory

Forage chicory (Cichorium intybus L.) is a perennial broadleaf that has good seedling vigor when established in moderately drained soils with a pH of 5.5 or greater. Chicory is an herb that closely resembles dandelion and develops a taproot that sustains lush green growth in times of drought and is best suited for grazing situations. The nutritive value of properly managed chicory is similar to that of alfalfa.

Two forage chicory varieties were evaluated in a grazing trial at the Upper Peninsula Experiment Station in Chatham, Mich., from 1996 to 2000. The trial was established in May 1995. Each plot consisted of a 3- by 25-foot area seeded with a Carter forage planter, which plants five rows 6 inches apart. The chicory was planted either with Alfagraze alfalfa or in a monoculture. Puna chicory has been sold for several years. Lacerta has been available in limited supplies for approximately three years. Forage yield samples from within each plot were taken using a small quadrant (2.7 square feet) prior to grazing. The sample was used to determine pregrazing yields. Another yield sample was taken after grazing to determine the amount of forage rejected by the animals. Holstein cows were used to graze the plots.

The plots were grazed one replication at a time using an electric polywire break fence. The rest periods between grazing events were approximately 30 to 35 days. The yield results are given in Table 14. When either of the chicory varieties was grown in a binary mixture of alfalfa, the yield increased by an average of 1.46 tons dry matter per acre over three years. Puna chicory yields were higher than Lacerta chicory when grown either in binary mixtures or as a monoculture. Visual observations taken in the fall of 1998 showed approximately 35 percent more Puna chicory plants than Lacerta chicory plants. This would indicate that Puna chicory is more persistent under the conditions at this experimental location. The yield of chicory or chicory-alfalfa mixtures was much lower than that of red clover or alfalfa varieties evaluated in the same experimental location.

The chicory bolted (flowers appeared) within a few weeks of the first grazing cycle each year of the trial. This would be somewhat challenging for producers to manage unless they were on a very short grazing cycle.

Cool-season Grasses

Evaluations of perennial cool-season grass species and varieties were initiated during 2000 in an attempt to evaluate grasses for herbage yield, stand persistence and palatability. During the summer of 2000, 20 varieties of six species of cool-season grasses were seeded at Lake City and East Lansing experiment stations. Each of the grasses (i.e., smooth bromegrass [20 pounds/acre], orchardgrass [15 pounds/acre], timothy [8 pounds/ acre], perennial ryegrass [30 pounds/acre] and tall fescue [15 pounds/acre]) were seeded in small plots (Lake City: 6 by 25 feet; East Lansing: 3 by 25 feet) using four replications. To test palatability and persistence, a Simmental beef herd was used for grazing at Lake City. Each plot was rated visually to determine amount of residue left after grazing. Rest periods were usually 30 to 35 days but varied from year to year and between grazing events, depending on forage regrowth rates. Results from this trial are shown in tables 15 and 16. The following paragraphs provide a summary of the species evaluated.

Orchardgrass (Dactylis glomerata L.) is a highyielding perennial bunchgrass that grows rapidly in the early spring and, once established, will outcompete most other forage species in lower Michigan. Soils with moderately poor drainage are ideal for this species, though it grows on a wide range of soil types. Tillering occurs throughout the growing season, enabling quick regrowth following harvest. Orchardgrass has similar nutritive characteristics to timothy and smooth bromegrass and should be harvested during the vegetative stages of growth prior to heading. Alfalfa and orchardgrass are often grown together in Michigan. Late-maturing varieties of orchardgrass are preferred in mixes with alfalfa.

Perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne L.) is a bunchgrass high in forage quality but somewhat lower in total yield. Perennial ryegrass will persist under intensive rotational grazing situations. It is susceptible to injury when grazed as frozen forage. This species is not as winter hardy as other coolseason grasses, but because of its high forage quality, many farmers are using it in their pasture mixes. Soils that are high in fertility and moderately well drained are ideal for this species. Hot and dry conditions will cause perennial ryegrass to go dormant. Supplemental irrigation can increase perennial ryegrass yields.

Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis L.) is a highly palatable perennial cool-season grass with good winter hardiness. It is a sod-forming, rhizomatous, low-yielding, cool-season pasture grass with excellent quality. It tolerates somewhat poorly drained soils, requires a medium soil fertility and soil pH of 5.8 to 6.5. Because of its shallow root system, it often flourishes in early spring, followed by dormancy in the summer months. It is often referred to as “June grass” because of the above seasonal growth characteristic.

Tall fescue (Festuca arundinacea L.) is a sod-forming grass that is renowned for fall growth. Tall fescue persists on many soil types and may produce short rhizomes and tillering when grazed frequently. It has a high relative nutritive value when closely grazed. All varieties tested were endophyte-free. Tall fescue persists under heavy traffic from vehicles or animals.

Festulolium (Festulolium braunii, K.A.) is a cross between meadow fescue and either perennial ryegrass or Italian ryegrass. This cross combines the persistence of fescue with the palatability of ryegrass. Legume/festulolium compatibility studies are underway in four locations across the state.

Timothy (Phluem pratense L.) is a bunchgrass that forms an open sod and persists well under highmoisture conditions. It is best known for its winter hardiness and ability to survive when covered by ice. Timothy should be grown with a legume such as alfalfa, red clover or birdsfoot trefoil. Because long rest periods between harvest and grazing are required for timothy to rebuild carbohydrate reserves, it is more adaptable to a two-cut harvest system.


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