Tips on quality hay and pasture for beginning farmers: Part 2 – Legume species for hay and pasture

Whether planting new, or working with what you already have, understanding the legume species that make up your forage can help you succeed.

Hay field
Chrisopher Libert,

Common perennial hay and grazing legume species on Michigan farms include alfalfa, red clover (weak perennial – 2 years), birdsfoot trefoil, white clover, ladino clover and alsike clover. These legumes can be seeded by themselves, but many times are seeded with other forage species for hay or pasture. Several perennial grasses may also be present in a mixture, including orchardgrass, timothy, smooth bromegrass, tall fescue, meadow fescue, meadow brome, alsike clover, reed canarygrass, perennial ryegrass and others. Beginners are well-advised to stick with the forage species that have worked well in their geographic area.


Alfalfa is a good choice when very high quality hay is needed. When made and stored well, alfalfa hay or haylage is dairy-quality feed of higher quality than normally required for beef, sheep, poultry, dry dairy animals or other species. Alfalfa requires well-drained, fertile soils with pH near neutral (pH 6.8 recommended) to thrive. Alfalfa doesn’t like “wet feet” and will not thrive in poorly drained soils. In a well-established stand, it can last up to 4-5 years before the alfalfa thins out very much. At this point, the spaces left by dying alfalfa plants are usually filled in with grasses or weeds.

Alfalfa is a legume and fixes its own nitrogen from the air, so it doesn’t require nitrogen fertilizer. However, it needs good levels of potassium, phosphorus, sulfur and other nutrients to reach its full potential. Alfalfa is also good component in mixed species hay, even if soil and fertility conditions are not optimum. Some seed is likely to establish and contribute yield, quality and nitrogen fixation to the mix. 

Bloat in ruminant animals grazing alfalfa and other legumes is a concern, but measures can be taken to reduce bloat risk, including seed mixing with forage grass. Kim Cassida, Michigan State University Extension forage specialist offers these suggestions for preventing pasture bloat:

  • Limit legumes to 50% or less of pasture.
  • Feed bloat preventatives (poloxalene, monensin).
  • Feed dry hay on pasture or before turn-out.
  • Avoid grazing wet pastures.
  • Avoid letting animals get too hungry.
  • Avoid grazing legumes altogether.
  • Cull bloat-prone animals.
  • Graze birdsfoot trefoil.

Red clover

Red clover is another dependable forage. Its soil requirements are somewhat lower than for alfalfa. Stand longevity, yield and quality are also typically lower than alfalfa. Red clover usually grows vigorously during the year of planting, survives the first winter after planting and regrows the second year. It frequently dies out after two years. There are improved ‘3-year’ red clover varieties available.

Red clover is rarely seeded alone, but rather incorporated into a mixture with other legumes and grasses. It can provide a good legume component in new seedings with other slower-staring legumes such as alfalfa, birdsfoot trefoil or ladino clovers coming into full production as the red clover fades out. Red clover is also a great choice for incorporation into older, grassy hay and pastures to improve quality and yield through frost seeding or no-till drilling.

White and ladino clovers

White and ladino clovers can contribute diversity, longevity and nitrogen fixation to hay and pastures as well. These species are not high yielding, but very persistent and tough. They are common in productive pastures. Bloat can also be a concern with these species.

Alsike clover

Alsike clover is another perennial legume option, well-adapted to heavier-textured soils. Be aware that alsike clover has the potential to cause photosensitization and other problems in horses, and occasionally in cattle.

Birdsfoot trefoil

Birdsfoot trefoil (BFT) is a unique and useful forage legume. Its high-tannin content eliminates bloat risk. BFT can do well on more acidic and less well-drained soils than either alfalfa or clovers, making it a good option for areas with clay soils. Trefoil is persistent through re-seeding. Some lower growing branches avoid grazing or mowing and produce viable seed, continuing the stand. Individual BFT plants don’t live much longer than alfalfa or red clover, but they are more capable of reseeding themselves. Although lower yielding than alfalfa, BFT has characteristics that make it a good fit on certain soils.

Your local Michigan State Univesity Extension field crops educator can assist with suggestions on hay and pasture establishment and management. Details including seeding rates, variety performance and other details on perennial forage legumes can be found on the MSU Forage Connections website.

Other articles in the series:

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