Renovate means to renew and improve – we’re going to be discussing how to manage a pasture or hay field that has become less productive and renovating or “renewing” it so it will become more productive.

This usually means adding lime and fertilizer, controlling weeds, and planting an adapted legume such as red clover and/or ladino white clover. The real benefits come as a result of getting legumes established in grass-dominated fields.

Adding legumes to hay and pasture fields brings at least four benefits:

• Higher yields: UK trials have shown renovating tall fescue pasture with six pounds of red clover produced higher yields (11,100 lbs/ac) than fertilizing that same pasture with up to 180 pounds of nitrogen per acre (9,900 lbs/ac).

• Improved quality: Adding legumes to grass fields improves forage quality over grass alone. This added quality includes increases in palatability, intake, digestibility and nutrient content. The result is improved animal performance. UK research and multi-year trials done in Indiana and Virginia have shown legumes improve animal performance such as growth rates, reproductive efficiency and milk production.

• Nitrogen fixation: legumes get their nitrogen needs from symbiotic bacteria that live in nodules on their roots. These bacteria are added when legume seed is inoculated or added by the seed company with pre-inoculated seed. This “fixed” nitrogen provides the nitrogen needed by the legumes and also by the grasses growing with them.

Different legumes are able to “fix” different amounts of nitrogen. Alfalfa usually fixes the most (200-300 lb/ac/yr), red clover (100-200 lb/ac/yr), and annual lespedeza is on the low side with about 75 pounds of nitrogen per acre. The value of nitrogen fixed by legumes depends on the cost of nitrogen fertilizer. For example if nitrogen was priced at 50 cents per pound, the value of nitrogen fixed by red clover would be $50 to $100.

• More summer growth: Most of the growth of cool-season grasses occurs in the spring and fall. Legumes make more growth in the summer months than cool-season grasses like fescue and orchardgrass. Thus growing grasses and legumes together improves the seasonal distribution of forages and will provide more growth during summer.

Step to renovate:

• Get your soil tested and apply the recommended lime and fertilizer. Typically legumes need higher soil pH and fertility level than grasses. Avoid using nitrogen if you have 25 percent or more legumes in your field. Added nitrogen stimulates grasses, which then become more competitive with legumes.

• Reduce vegetative cover on the soil by heavy grazing in late fall or early winter. Removing excess grass cover will make it easier for the legume seed to come in contact with the soil.

• Select the legumes to be used. This will depend on the soil and the planned use of the forage. For hay, alfalfa or red clover usually is the best. For both hay and grazing, a combination of red clover and ladino clover works well. For pasture, ladino clover, red clover and/or annual lespedeza all work well.

• Use the right kind and amount of seed. Use certified seed to make sure you know what you’re planting. Use the right kind of inoculant mixed with the seed just prior to planting. Seeding rates in pounds per acre: Ladino white clover 1-3, red clover 6-12, annual lespedeza 15-25, alfalfa 12-20 and if mixing any of these together, reduce amounts of each by 1/3.

• Make sure you get seed to soil contact. Lightly cultivate using a disc, field cultivator or field tiller. Disturb 40-60 per­cent of the sod for planting clovers. Broadcast the seed and pack with a corrugated roller. Or use a no-till renovation seeder. Clovers need to be seeded by April 15, Alfalfa by May 1, and Annual Lespedeza by April 1.

• Control grass and weed competition after legumes start to grow – which is very critical. Mow or graze grass until legumes are 3-4 inches tall. Stop grazing when animals begin to bite off the tops of young legume leaves. Grazing and mowing should be stopped for several weeks until the legumes become well established. Many attempts at renovation have failed simply because the grass was allowed to grow and reduce the light, nutrients, and water available to young legume plants.

For information on renovation of pastures and hay fields contact the Hardin County Cooperative Extension Service at 270-765-4121.

COVID-19 Extension Office Status. The Hardin County Cooperative Extension Service staff is working during this COVID-19 pandemic. However, our office lobby is not open to the public but there is a secure area of residents to drop off soil, forage and plant samples with accompanying forms and pens available. This secure area is available each day Monday through Friday during normal office hours 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. All events at the extension service have been canceled or postponed as per CDC, local, state and federal guidelines.

Each of our staff members can be reached by phone and/or email during this time. If you have a need or question, contact our office at 270-765-4121. Safe healthy and safe during this time.

Doug Shepherd is a Hardin County Extension agent for agriculture and natural resources.