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Understanding how plants function (physiology) and their form and structure (morphology) is important when managing grazing animals because both physiological and morphological changes affect plant survival and the quantity and quality of forage. This publication presents an overview of basic plant physiology and morphology, and discusses the impact of form and function of plants on grazing management. The optimal temperature for growth is 65 to 75 degrees F for cool-season plants and 85 to 90 degrees F for warm-season plants. For some pasture plants such as tall fescue, leaving more herbage at grazing may allow the plant to better withstand a period of low water availability. The ability of some grasses and legumes to recover quickly after defoliation makes them valuable for forage production. This publication replaces Chapter 3, Growth of Forage Plants, in MU Extension publication M168, Dairy Grazing Manual. You can boost the nitrogen content of you soil without using artificial fertilizers by growing legumes plants instead. If you just can't stand the thought of letting your cover crop of clover merely grow peacefully in the garden — and are dying to use the plants — here are some ideas. An awareness of how plants respond physiologically and morphologically to their environment provides the basis for understanding how plants react to external factors such as high and low temperatures, drought, light and grazing. Cool-season plants originated from temperate regions and have a C3 system, whereas warm-season plants evolved under tropical conditions with the C4 photosynthetic pathway.
Warm-season plants use a little more than half as much water as cool-season plants to produce the same amount of dry matter. An individual plant is made up of many tillers, and a typical pasture has about 30 plants and 400 to 1,000 tillers per square foot. About half the growing points of grasses develop into seed heads and are pushed above the canopy when the stem elongates.
When a grass plant that has its growing point at or near ground level is grazed, new leaf material can be produced from the stem apex of the grazed tiller (Figure 3).
Unless some leaf material remains, the only source of energy for the developing bud is that stored in the plant’s storage organs. Although all grasses look somewhat different, this stylized drawing shows the major parts of a grass plant. However, plants vary the proportion of photosynthate to roots and shoots during the season. Because removing only part of the canopy does not interfere with the continued development of the root system, the plant will have deeper roots. Although all legumes look somewhat different, this stylized drawing shows the major parts of a legume plant. However, removing too many leaves reduces forage production and damages the root system of the plant.
Early in the season, the stem is very short and the growing points are located at the base of the plant. Since this colorless, odorless gas is the basic building block for protein, its availability is extremely important to the plants (and animals) that feed us. Plants make simple sugars, or carbohydrates (CH2O), and release oxygen (O2) using light energy from the sun, carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air, and water (H2O) from the soil (Figure 1).


Only 2 to 6 percent of the sun’s energy that reaches a sward is converted into plant growth. Warm-season plants are more efficient than cool-season plants when both are grown under optimal conditions because the C4 system is more efficient than the C3 system at gathering CO2.
Because warm-season plants have higher water-use efficiency and higher optimum temperature for growth, warm-season pastures are more productive during the hot, dry summer months.
When photosynthesis exceeds immediate carbohydrate (CHO) needs, excess carbohydrates are stored in the roots of legumes or stem bases of grasses. In contrast, carbohydrate storage decreases when the growth rate is fast and leaf area is small. Although a grass plant will have many generations of individual tillers and each tiller is self-supporting, the original connection between tillers is usually not severed. On a plant that is less severely defoliated, the developing bud can receive energy manufactured by the remaining leaf material, in which case the plant’s carbohydrate reserves are not depleted and do not have to be replenished. Grazed grass plants with growing points close to ground level (top) regrow differently than grazed grass plants with elevated growing points (bottom). Minerals and nitrogen from the soil are combined with the sugars to make fiber, protein, plant oils and fats. Conversely, cool-season pastures are more productive in the cooler, more moist spring and fall months. When the plant produces more carbohydrates than are needed for growth and maintenance, the excess is moved to the storage organs. Moving up a tiller from the bottom, each leaf is younger than the one below, and successive leaves are on opposite sides of the tiller. However, the plant will be harmed if it repeatedly has to use its stored carbohydrates because of close defoliation, as it will not have time to replenish carbohydrates between defoliations. These elongated tillers will produce no new leaves and, because of the stems, are of lower quality than vegetative tillers. However, there's no need to pay for such substances (many of which are the results of energy- and pollution-intensive manufacturing processes) because it's easy to get nitrogen by growing legume plants.As you may know, members of the legume family have the ability to grab free nitrogen from the air for their own use and — with the help of certain bacteria — "fix" it in the soil, where the substance can benefit other plants. Light interception depends on the amount of leaf in a sward, which is expressed as leaf area index (LAI). Plants use stored carbohydrates to survive during winter and, when conditions become more suitable, to renew growth. Plants maintain maximum root vigor and growth if no more than half their leaf area is removed at each grazing.
Some species elongate relatively early in the growing season, and removal of these tillers means that new growth must come from the base of the plant. Because CO2 is not abundant (0.036 percent in the atmosphere), the success of a plant depends on its ability to collect and use CO2. Plants must be allowed the opportunity to store carbohydrates for those times when photosynthesis is unable to produce enough for growth. Following removal of the shoot, the levels of carbohydrates in the roots are low, and root growth can be suspended.
Plants of this type require a longer interval between defoliations so that the their root reserves can be replenished.


Storage of excess carbohydrates is vital to the survival of the plant because carbohydrates are the only source of energy for new growth after dormancy, severe defoliation or environmental stress. During the growing season, perennial plants store food (carbohydrates) in the bases of the shoots of grasses or the roots of legumes. The plants use these reserves to live while dormant and to make the first new growth after dormancy or defoliation. The aerial tillers associated with some grasses, such as switchgrass and reed canarygrass, are the least productive of the new tillers. That's really double-cropping!This year, in addition to my regular legume patch, I sowed a few extra plants in the open spaces in my corn plot.
The beans are doing well, and even seem to have suffered less insect damage than did the main patch.
Many legumes make champion green manure crops as well, as they're among the best soil conditioners around.Soybeans or cowpeas, if sown thickly in late summer and then dug in at frost-time, will provide rich earth for next year's early greens and such. Plant them as soon as possible in the spring, and turn the vines under a few weeks before sowing the following crop.
However, there are some other legumes that offer the potential of producing long-term supplies of nitrogen.The LongВ  RunThe most exciting addition to any garden can be clover.
Often used in rotation with wheat and corn, the hard-working plants can enrich the earth with substantial amounts of pure nitrogen.
In fact, planting an acre in clover can equal the benefits of adding as much as 1,300 pounds of blood meal to the same area!One way to use red clover is to insert it into your garden's rotation plan. Then, early in the following spring, dig in the crop, and — in a few weeks — plant a nitrogen-loving vegetable in its place.Alfalfa, queen of the organic farm, can also have a niche in your back yard. Then, when the legume thins out, plant the spot in corn!A champion fertilizer crop, alfalfa can fix as much as 250 pounds of nitrogen per acre (depending on weather and soil conditions). Furthermore, the USDA is working on strains of this plant that may be able to provide 500 pounds per acre.Alfalfa will fit into a rotation plan very well, but it should stay for at least two years (that is, one year longer than red clover) to assure a maximum nitrogen yield.
In order to "justify" such a long residence in a small garden, I plan to try "plugging" this year's sweet corn right into the alfalfa I planted last year.
I should get a crop of sugary ears and a lush legume cover at the same time.The Specialists Red clover and alfalfa are both excellent soil builders, but they may not be right for every situation.
Its powerful five- to eight-foot roots can crack hardpan, and it'll grow in places where few other plants can survive, even in the cracks of a road's shoulder.
The white-flowered types are the bushier of the two, and thus produce more green matter to dig in. So if you want to use them as mulch, do so early in the year.Fixin' ItTaking advantage of the green manure plants makes growing your own nitrogen easy. Remember, though, that legumes fix the most nitrogen when sown in poor soils (naturally, they don't need to work so hard in rich ground).



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