Selecting perennial and annual forage species and varieties for Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

New publication from Michigan State University Extension can help you make good choices when establishing or improving hay fields or pastures.

Pasture in Michigan's Delta County. Photo by Jim Isleib, MSU Extension.

Farm numbers and crop acreage in the Upper Peninsula are relatively small compared to the entire state of Michigan. Based on 2012 information from the Michigan Agricultural Statistics Service (MASS), only 3% of Michigan’s farms were in the Upper Peninsula. With 3% of the state’s population living in the Upper Peninsula, this makes sense, even though the Upper Peninsula contains 29% of Michigan’s land mass. Climate and soils in most of the region are not conducive to corn, soybean and other cash crops. However, based on 2017 information from MASS, the Upper Peninsula represents 13% of Michigan’s hay (not including pastures not harvested as hay), 23% of its oats, 34% of its feed barley and about 3% of its corn silage and potatoes.

Hayfield pasture
Hayfield/pasture in Michigan's Schoolcraft County. Photo by Jim Isleib, MSU Extension.

Most of the hay and pasture in the Upper Peninsula is composed of grass and grass/legume mixture. Dairy farms on suitable soils utilize alfalfa. Where alfalfa is in the dairy rotation, rotations are usually shorter than on other types of farms. These farms may include beef cow-calf, sheep, horse, other livestock operations and farms selling hay.

When hay fields or pastures are reseeded, farmers should select proven and tested species and varieties. Of course, cost is an issue, but keep in mind that the cost of seed is a very small factor when averaged over the stand life of possibly many years.

The new Michigan State University Extension publication E3309, “Recommended Hay and Pasture Forages for Michigan” by MSU forage specialist Kim Cassida and MSU Extension forage educator Phil Kaatz, provides an excellent guide for seed selection decisions. The 12-page publication includes descriptions of common species, several handy tables listing species characteristics, a section with tips on seed mixtures for various purposes, and a step-by-step guide for formulating a forage seeding mixture. Many farmers opt to buy a preformulated commercial hay or pasture seed mix. Keep in mind that you can prepare a specific mix for your farm based on your experience and good research information.

Hayfield pasture
Hayfield/pasture in Michigan's Iron County. Photo by Jim Isleib, MSU Extension.

For Upper Peninsula beef producers with long rotations, longevity of forage species may be of high interest. Using the tables in the publication, selecting longer-lasting productivity can be considered. For example, cool season grasses with longer stand life include species such as Kentucky bluegrass, meadow bromegrass, timothy, tall fescue, smooth bromegrass and reed canary grass. Orchardgrass, meadow fescue and perennial ryegrass are rated with less stand life expectancy. Similarly, alfalfa and kura clover are rated with longest expected stand life, followed by Birdsfoot trefoil and then red and alsike clovers. Many other characteristics are included in convenient table form, including recommended uses, seeding characteristics, yield potential and other agronomic details.

Upper Peninsula forage meetings

MSU Extension is offering a set of Recipes for Forage Success educational meetings for farmers focusing on forage seed selection and production practices. These free meetings will be held in three locations in 2020 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.:

  • March 9: Rudyard Township Hall, 18725 S. Mackinac Trail, Rudyard, MI 49780 
  • March 26: Delta County MSU Extension Office, 2840 College Avenue, Escanaba, MI 49829
  • April 6: Mass City Community Center, 1502 Mass Avenue, Mass City, MI 49948

Please register online by March 7 or by contacting Jim Isleib at or the Alger County MSU Extension Office at 906-387-2530. Low registration will result in cancellation, so be sure to register.

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