Sericea lespedeza was introduced into the United States from Japan late in the 19th century and seed was made available to livestock producers beginning in the early 1920s. However, the first sericea lespedeza to which producers initially had access were tall-growing, stemmy types with tannin levels that made them unpalatable to grazing livestock.
However, plant breeding programs, especially the one at Auburn University (AU), have greatly changed this plant. Stem size has been reduced, root-knot nematode resistance has been developed and some varieties have reduced tannin levels. The most recent variety release, AU Grazer, is a grazing-tolerant type. The improved varieties actually bear little resemblance to the sericea types introduced nearly a century ago.
A result of recent increases in livestock production inputs, forage legumes in general are of more interest than used to be the case. However, sericea lespedeza especially deserves a closer look because it is a true low-input species.
Wide adaptation- Sericea can be grown on well-drained soils over a wide portion of the eastern United States, but it is especially well-suited to heavier upland soils like in North Alabama.
Perennial- Sericea is a long-term perennial forage crop. Once established, it will persist indefinitely with appropriate management.
Low fertilizer requirements- Sericea is a legume and thus does not require nitrogen fertilization. It responds to phosphorous and potassium in areas where these nutrients are in short supply, but it is much more tolerant of infertile conditions than most legumes.
Tolerance to soil acidity- Although a soil pH range of 5.8 to 6.5 is usually recommended, sericea tolerates soil acidity, including acid subsoils.
Good forage yield- On-farm hay production is often around three tons per acre in two or three harvests, but yields of up to five tons of dry matter per acre have been produced in research plots. Stocking rates for sericea pastures are only slightly lower than for tall fescue, bahiagrass or orchardgrass.
Drought tolerance- Sericea plants (even seedlings) are quite drought tolerant. This makes the crop particularly useful in areas where cool season species that are vulnerable to summer droughts predominate.
Good forage quality- On a dry matter basis, sericea hay normally contains about 12-14 percent crude protein and 55-60 percent total digestible nutrients. As compared to pasture forage, sericea hay has a reduced tannin content and increased digestibility, with the result being that intake of sericea as hay increases in ruminants in relation to fresh forage.
Pest resistance- Few disease and insect problems are associated with sericea.
Soil-building properties- Sericea tends to shed lower leaves, which enrich the soil. In addition, the roots penetrate the soil to considerable depths, thus improving soil structure.
Fast drying- Sericea hay can be baled quickly, reducing the risk of rain damage. Growers often are able to cut the crop one day and bale it the next.
Low cost- Once established, sericea costs relatively little to maintain compared to most forage crops. As a result, the cost-per-pound of gain is low relative to most other forage crops.
Parasite control- Research at several universities has revealed that sericea provides significant benefit in reducing the numbers of internal parasites in small ruminant animals.
No forage crop is perfect or right for every situation. Disadvantages of sericea lespedeza include
slow establishment, a fairly short growing season (although this can be lengthened by interseeding winter annuals) and lower palatability than many forage crops. However, objective consideration of the characteristics of this species seems to suggest, in many forage production situations, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. If you would like additional information about sericea lepedeza go to www.alabamaforages.com and click on "Lespedeza."
Don Ball is an Extension Forage Crop Agronomist with Auburn University.