I’m sure it seems a bit odd to talk about summer grazing in January, but a good grazing plans means prior planning. We all know of the usual summer annual standbys, millet and sorghum-sudan, and to some degree crabgrass. I want to discuss a less popular but once widely used summer annual legume in this article — lespedeza.
Annual lespedeza is adapted to most North Carolina soils with the exceptions of deep, dry sands. It tolerates low pH and fertility but will respond to fertilization. However, too much fertilizer will cause the lespedeza to be crowded out by more vigorous, higher yielding plants in the stand. The general growth period is May to October. Peak growth occurs in June, July, and August. A common practice is to over-seed Fescue with annual lespedeza to fill in the summer slump of the fescue. Annual lespedeza is high in quality with protein levels of 14 to 18 percent and 60 to 65 percent digestibility. In fact, early cut hay may be equal to alfalfa hay. Annual lespedeza is readily grazed and has relatively high levels of phosphorus, calcium, and magnesium. Even better, it can be grazed without worrying about bloat problems. On the down side, yields are relatively low at 1.5 to 2 tons per acre in pure stands and 2 to 3 tons when mixed with grasses.
There are two main types, Kobe and Korean. Korean type does better in the coastal plain. Both perform well in the Piedmont. Marion has been the most popular variety but a new variety, called Legend, is out now that seems to be performing well in tests. In some tests, the Legend has out yielded Marion by almost double. Work done at NCSU has not shown this yield advantage in our area. Ideally seeds should be planted from February 1 through Feb. 20, but can be sown February thru April. Seeding rate is 20 to 30 pounds per acre and should be broad cast or put out with a seeder. Drills generally put the seed too deep as they should be no more than one-half inch in the ground, one-quarter inch or less being preferred. Grazing should be done in a rotational manner. If cut for hay, annual lespedeza should be cut in the early bloom stage. One note of caution, annual lespedeza can and will naturally reseed so it could become somewhat of a pest under certain conditions. But don’t plan on natural reseeding for the next years grazing!
One last note, don’t confuse the annual lespedeza with perennial Sericea lespedeza. It too tolerates low fertility and acid soils but is not nearly as high in quality. It is a perennial. It will spread. It can become a nuisance. Also, if allowed to get over about 18 inches tall, it will become hard, stemmy, woody, unpalatable, quality drops rapidly, tannin levels increase, and livestock will not eat it, except goats. Goats love Sericea. As a bonus, the high tannin levels have been shown to work as a natural dewormer in the goats. If very tall, they will only eat the top out and you’ll need to mow the tougher stems that are left. If grazed when 6 to 8 inches tall, it is eaten well by livestock. Sericea should be cut for hay when 12 inches tall and, whether grazed or mowed, should be taken no lower than 3 inches. Lime and fertilizer improve palatability. Seedling vigor is poor and it cannot be used the first year. Sericea is not typically recommended for planting but can be utilized if already on the farm.