Farm Transitions: Valuing Sustainable Practices—Perennial Pastures and Hayfields — What's in Them?


Perennial grasses form dense mats of fibrous roots that hold soil in place. Grasses for pasture and hay are generally divided into “cool-season” grasses, which have their main growth in the spring and fall; and “warm-season” grasses, which grow well in the heat of summer. In northern states, cool-season grasses are what you most commonly see in pastures and hayfields.

Common types of cool-season hay & pasture grasses:
Timothy, smooth bromegrass, orchardgrass, quackgrass, fescues, ryegrasses

Common types of warm-season grasses in the Midwest:
Switchgrass, Big Bluestem, Indiangrass


Legumes are plants related to beans and peas. They have a close relationship with a particular group of bacteria that live in the soil, called Rhizobia. Rhizobia “infect” legume roots where they collect nitrogen that the plants take in from the atmosphere, which is about 70% nitrogen gas. The bacteria transform this atmospheric nitrogen into a form useable by plants. Well-managed legume crops reduce the need for purchased synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, which is produced using fossil fuels.

Most common hay & pasture legumes:
Alfalfa , red clover, white clover, birdsfoot trefoil

Less common hay & pasture legumes:
Kura clover, sainfoin, crownvetch, alsike clover


Forbs are broad-leaved plants that are neither grasses nor legumes. Most of the plants that you recognize as weeds in your garden are forbs. Some forbs are weeds in pasture, and may be harmful to livestock. Some forbs are planted intentionally in pastures to provide variety in the livestock diet. Certain types of forbs have other beneficial effects such as long and fleshy roots that can loosen compacted soil and “scavenge” water and nutrients from deep in the soil.

Common planted forbs for pasture:
Turnip, chicory

Common pasture weeds that are forbs:
Canada thistle, goldenrod, curly dock, wild carrot


Evaluating Land Suitability for Grazing Cattle. 2013. Midwest Perennial Forage Working Group, Green Lands Blue Waters.