Butterfly on forage legume.Forage Legumes

Forages are a main source of livestock food, and unlike most other crops they have no direct human use. Alfalfa, clover, vetch — all legumes — and grass make up 70 percent of the diet of beef cattle and 90 percent of sheep intake. Perennial forages protect against erosion because the soil is not tilled each year.


In the 1880s alfalfa was an experimental crop that wouldn't survive Minnesota winters, though it was the forage of choice for European dairy herds. 

Cutting alfalfa.

University animal scientists and agronomists determined that alfalfa should be cut in the "early flowering stage" to obtain maximum digestibility and highest nutrient concentration. Minnesota farmers typically cut alfalfa three times a year and with good management get five years of production before reseeding is necessary.

In 1895 the U's Agricultural Experiment Station released its first three plant varieties: an oat, a wheat, and "Grimm" alfalfa. The name honors the Carver County farmer who brought 20 pounds of alfalfa seed from Germany in 1857. By collecting seed from surviving plants, he developed a winter-hardy alfalfa that researchers used for extensive management studies and breeding.

Alfalfa crop rotation.

While alfalfa is traditionally grown as a perennial, U of M and USDA breeders released 'Nitro' in 1986 as an alternative annual crop in rotation with corn and soybeans. 'Nitro' was developed as a one-year, high-nitrogen fixing legume that does not overwinter.

Alfalfa is now the mainstay of our dairy industry, which ranks fifth in the country and brings in $1.5 billion to farmers, and adds over $6 billion to processors of milk, cheese, butter, and ice cream. Almost 150 years ago Minnesota dairying led to the establishment of the first farm cooperatives in the country. Now, we are home to two of the world's largest.

Deep rooting varieties of alfalfa were developed by UM-USDA scientists to extract nitrogen from the soil. The legume's roots reach below the root systems of cereal crops to keep nitrogen from entering groundwater or tile lines. In the last decade, alternative legumes such as kura clover and native species such as cicer milkvetch have been introduced by the University as options to help diversify Minnesota agriculture.


Close up of clover.U of M breeding of red and white clovers and bromegrass began in 1946. The goal is to improve winter hardiness and disease resistance. 'Minn A' white clover germplasm was released to industry breeders in 1974 and is found in many commercial varieties.

Clover with a honeybee.An indirect benefit of crop production is the 12 million pounds of honey produced here each year. U of M entomologists have developed "hygienic" honeybees that are helping colonies nationwide eliminate parasitic mites.

Cicer Milkvetch

Lambs.Livestock, like children, won't eat something they don"t like. University and USDA research led to release of "HiPal" — short for high palatability — cicer milkvetch, and a low alkaloid reed canary grass, a native grass that cattle previously would not eat. 

U of M researchers were the first to prove that palatability differences are more important than crop yield, or quantity of nutrients, in grazing animal performance.

Legumes roots.Legumes

Legumes — plants with pods above ground and nodules on their roots — have the unique ability to take nitrogen from the air and convert it into soil nitrogen that can be used by later crops as fertilizer.

Management Guides for Forages

Farmland.Applied research helps farmers manage forages to produce the best crop for dairy, beef, and sheep herds. In 1937 the University published the first comprehensive management guide for alfalfa, earlier considered an "exotic" crop. Today, scientists evaluate forages in many ways:

  • Species selection
  • Planting date
  • Planting rate
  • How often to harvest
  • Grazing or mechanical harvest
  • Forage quality and yield
Continue on to Grasses

U of M Forage Legumes

Forage legumes near road.Plant breeders strive to develop forage crops to meet the quality and palatability or taste requirements of livestock, and practical needs of farmers including high yield, disease resistance, and winter hardiness. Forages are also valued for erosion control, both on crop land and along highways.

U of M forage varieties include:


  • Grimm
  • Ramsey
  • AgateARC
  • Nitro
  • Wrangler

Cicer Milkvetch

  • HiPal

Birdsfoot Trefoil

  • Norcen
  • Nueltin
  • Roseau

Red Clover

  • Wegener