Alfalfa is the forage of choice among Upper Midwestern livestock producers, but it doesn't fit every growing or feeding situation. Where it doesn't, a combination of kura clover and reed canarygrass is definitely worth a closer look, says Ken Albrecht.
“If I had land where I could grow alfalfa, I would grow alfalfa,” says Albrecht, a University of Wisconsin agronomist. “But if I were in a situation where my soils were a little wet, where alfalfa was susceptible to winterkill or where I wanted a little more flexibility with grazing and making hay or silage, I'd go with the kura clover-reed canarygrass. It's a very productive, high-yielding, stable mixture.”
Longevity plays a role in Albrecht's favorable assessment of the mixture. He first planted eight acres of it at the university's Arlington Research Station in March 1999. The stand has been grazed or hayed numerous times each year and subjected to ice sheeting, open winters and droughts.
“It looks as good today as it did nine years ago, with about 40% clover and 60% grass,” says Albrecht. “Think of it as a risk management tool. No matter what happens, you know that mixture is going to be there next year.”
The mixture matches up fairly well with alfalfa on yield. In one three-year Wisconsin trial, alfalfa produced 4.6 tons/acre of dry matter per season compared to 4.03 tons for kura clover-reed canarygrass. The two crops were cut for hay on the same days, three or four times per season, with the final cutting taken in late August. Albrecht says that if an October harvest had been included, the mixture would not have been at risk to winterkill like the alfalfa would have been.
If there's a downside, both reed canarygrass and kura clover can be difficult and slow to establish. Albrecht's 1999 seeding nearly reached its full yield potential in its second year. But that seeding was on good prairie soil during a plentiful-moisture year. Many farmers who have tried the mixture report they saw no significant production for at least three years.
Joe Tomandl III, a dairy grazier from Medford, WI, no-tilled the mixture on two, five-acre pastures 10 years ago. One of those seedings was into sod, the other into corn stubble.
“For the first three years or so, we were wondering if we had made a big mistake,” says Tomandl, who milks 170 Jerseys and crossbred cows. “It was just so slow to get going.”
When the stand finally did take off, though, Tomandl was more than satisfied.
“Once it got going, it never looked back,” he says. “You'll hear people say it sleeps, creeps and then leaps. It's true.”
Don Boland, who grazes 120 crossbred dairy cows near Mt. Sterling, WI, had a similar experience when he seeded his first 10-acre stand of kura clover-reed canarygrass 10 years ago. His initial goal was to move away from row cropping on hillier ground.
“We were planting corn on some pretty steep hillsides,” he says. “We wanted to get away from that and establish a permanent sod on those areas.”
Boland experimented with several grasses and legumes in combination with kura clover before finally settling on the kura-reed mix.
“We tried orchardgrass and ladino clover, but both of those were so aggressive,” he explains. “There was too much competition and the kura clover couldn't get going. We also tried annual ryegrass but got pretty much the same result.”
Like Tomandl, Boland learned to be patient while waiting for the mixture to hit its stride.
“At first it doesn't look like it's doing anything at all,” he says. “But then you go back two or three years later and it's coming on like gangbusters.”
Boland has followed up with several additional seedings and now has 30 acres of the mixture. After some initial experimentation, he's settled on a seeding rate of 6 lbs of kura clover and 10 lbs of reed canarygrass. He also seeds 4 lbs of alfalfa and ½ lb of red clover with the mixture as a cover crop.
“That way, we can get some forage off it right away while we're waiting for the kura clover and reed canarygrass to take off,” he says.
While Tomandl no-tilled his mixture, Boland chose to seed into a well-prepared seedbed. Researcher Albrecht gives a slight edge to the conventional approach, but says no-till can work well if you do a good job of killing competing vegetation prior to seeding. He's had success with both spring and late-summer seedings of the mixture.
“There are advantages and drawbacks either way,” says Albrecht. “If you seed in late summer, you run the risk it could be dry. On the other hand, you won't have as many weed problems to deal with at that time of year.”
Bottom line, he says, the same practices that serve producers well for seeding alfalfa will also increase the chances of success with a kura-reed mixture.
“If you control existing vegetation, plant at the right population, get good seed-to-soil contact and treat with the proper strain of Rhizobia, you'll increase the likelihood of good establishment,” he says.
Like Albrecht, Tomandl and Boland believe persistence and hardiness are positive attributes of the mixture.
“In the last four years, we've had some incredibly dry summers here,” Tomandl says. “But this stuff has held up to drought and stress better than anything else we have in the pastures and without much in the way of inputs. And that's why we tried it in the first place. We wanted something we didn't need to go into and renovate all the time.”
Boland, who outwinters his dairy herd, even grazed his cows on kura-reed pastures during a spring thaw.
“It came back just beautiful,” he says. “This stuff really takes a beating. When you put cows on it, you can do things that you would never do with alfalfa.”
Both dairy producers also give the mixture high ratings for palatability and digestibility, two key components for maintaining milk production.
“The cows do well on it,” says Tomandl. “The kura clover is very palatable. With the reed canarygrass, you have to catch it early. If you let it mature too much, it can get a little rank. The cows will eventually get around to eating it, but it's usually the last thing they'll go to.”
In a 2005 University of Wisconsin trial, kura-reed silage almost matched alfalfa haylage when fed in a total mixed ration. In that 56-day trial, cows fed alfalfa haylage ate 52 lbs/cow/day of dry matter. Cows fed the kura-reed silage consumed slightly less, 50 lbs/cow/day. Cows in the alfalfa group produced slightly more milk — 78.3 vs. 76.7 lbs.
A final consideration: Availability and cost of seed can be issues, especially with kura clover.
“It can be hard to find,” says Albrecht. “It's not a really good seed producer and growers can make more money growing other kinds of seed. People in the seed industry have questions about the potential size of the market and how far they should go in pursuing it. It looks like a few companies are now taking a closer look. Time will tell.”
Endura kura clover plus reed canarygrass consistently outyielded mixtures of kura and three other grasses in University of Minnesota sheep and goat grazing trials.
“Timothy and Kentucky bluegrass did not compete adequately to be considered viable grass options,” according to a report on kura as a forage crop. Orchardgrass “generally maintained a favorable balance with kura clover,” but its yield potential with the clover was inconsistent.
Kura clover percentages in mixtures increased from 23% to 58% in three years of grazing after the establishment year.