Kura clover plus reed canarygrass almost matches alfalfa for yield and quality, and when it comes to stand longevity, the mixture wins by a mile.
“I'd stick my neck out and say that it potentially will be there for as long as you want it to be there,” says Ken Albrecht, University of Wisconsin agronomist. “It's truly a permanent mixture.”
He and Dave Combs, a dairy scientist at the university, are excited about this grass-legume combination. As a pasture crop, it has outshined every other mixture they've tried. But they say it shows some promise as a hay and silage crop, too.
“I think this mixture has huge potential in marginal soils where we have difficulty growing alfalfa,” says Albrecht. “We've got soils that are a little wet and we sometimes have root disease problems with alfalfa. We grow alfalfa there, anyway, because our other alternatives are low-yielding and relatively short-lived.”
He says reed canarygrass and kura clover work well together because they're both aggressive and very persistent. When other grasses are grown with kura, the clover eventually fills in when the grass is damaged or dies. But reed canarygrass holds its own.
“They're both very resilient and will recover from management stresses such as cattle treading or wheel traffic as well as environmental stresses such as wet or open winters,” says Albrecht.
The scientists first grew the kura-reed partnership in small plots beside numerous other forage mixtures, trying to find the ideal combination for pastures. Then, in late March 1999, they seeded eight acres of it at the university's Arlington Research Station. Since then, that stand has been harvested frequently by cattle or equipment, and has withstood ice sheeting, open winters, drought and other problems that killed most other forages.
Today it's still a thick, roughly 50-50 mixture of the two species, with few weeds.
“Farmers who've seen that mixture are really quite excited about it,” says Albrecht.
“It's yielded really well year in and year out,” adds Combs. “For grazing, we get a good mix of grass and legume to minimize the risk of bloat.”
A feeding trial last year was aimed at evaluating the quality of kura-reed silage made from surplus spring growth. Silage is probably a better option than hay because kura dries slowly, says Combs.
He says the mixture wilted well in the field and fermented normally in silage bags. “It made a high-quality silage.”
Dairy cows produced well on it, but not quite as well as cows fed bud-stage alfalfa silage. Both forages were fed in TMRs as 60% of total dry matter intake.
During the 56-day trial, cows fed alfalfa silage ate 52 lbs/cow/day of dry matter vs. 50 lbs for the reed-kura group, and produced slightly more milk (78.3 vs. 76.7 lbs/cow/day).
Combs points out that the fiber in reed-kura silage is more digestible than that in alfalfa silage. But the mixture had significantly more of it, testing 47% NDF vs. 37% NDF for the alfalfa silage.
“I think that probably was what held intake down,” he says. “I didn't sense that there were any palatability problems with the silage at all.”
In another trial, the mixture's season-long yield was compared with that of alfalfa over a three-year period. Kura-reed and alfalfa were cut on the same day either three or four times per season, with the final cutting taken in late August.
On average, the alfalfa yielded 4.6 tons of dry matter per season vs. 4.03 tons for the mixture.
“But with the kura-reed we could have taken an additional harvest in autumn because we wouldn't have to worry about winterkill,” says Albrecht. “So I'd say yield would be slightly less or equal to alfalfa.”
Reed canarygrass and especially kura clover both have reputations for being difficult and slow to establish. Farmers who've seeded kura clover into existing grass pastures haven't always succeeded. And those who've been able to establish the clover often report no significant production until the third year.
Albrecht and Combs say to establish a seedbed using bare-ground tillage like you would with alfalfa or red clover.
“When we work in prepared seedbeds, we haven't had difficulty in establishing either of these plants,” says Albrecht.
Combs is more conservative.
“As far as I'm concerned, the establishment issues are probably the weakest thing with the mix,” he says. “That's one of the biggest challenges.”
Both emphasize the need to eliminate early weed competition, either by grazing or clipping. If the land is infested with perennial weeds such as quackgrass or Canada thistle, they should be controlled prior to seeding.
Choose a low-alkaloid reed canarygrass variety and an improved kura clover. Avoid seed bags with no variety stated; it's probably an older, less-productive variety. On the day of seeding, inoculate the kura seed with the proper strain of Rhizobia.
At Arlington, they seeded 8 lbs/acre of Endura kura clover and 8-10 lbs/acre of Palaton reed canarygrass with a Brillion seeder. In those productive soils and with plenty of moisture, both species emerged quickly. The stand was then grazed 50-60 days after seeding to remove annual broadleaf weeds, and twice more that season.
“We didn't take yields, but based on walking through those pastures during that first year, my best guess is that we had in the range of 3 tons/acre,” says Albrecht. “Again, it was a good moisture year and we got it in early.”
By the second year, the stand was almost at its full production potential, he says.