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Forage species include Grasses, Legumes, and other Forbs that are further classified as cool-season or warm-season species that can be annuals, biennials, or perennials.
Grasses belong to the Poaceae plant family, previously known as Gramineae. Most grasses are herbaceous (non-woody) monocotyledonous plants with one leaf emerging from the seed. They have jointed, slender, sheathed leaves.
Legumes belong to the Fabaceae plant family, previously known as Leguminosae. They are dicotyledonous, with two seed leaves. They bear pods that dehisce (split open) along both sutures, revealing from one to many seeds. Leguminous plant roots act as hosts for nodule-forming bacteria of the Rhizobium or Bradyrhizobium genera leading to fixation of atmospheric nitrogen (N2). This reduces their need for nitrogen fertilization.
Forbs are herbaceous, broadleaved plants that are not grasses, sedges or rushes. They are dicotyledonous. All legumes are forbs, but not all forbs are legumes.
Cool-season species have an optimal temperature range of 18-22 °C (64.4-71.6 °F). Thus, greatest forage production occurs in the spring and fall. Winter-hardiness ranges from tolerant of mild to severe cold. These species have a C-3 physiology and anatomy, characterized by carbon fixation via ribulose bis-phosphate carboxylase (RUBPcase) and highly digestible leaves with several layers of mesophyll cells and few bundle sheath cells.
Warm-season species have an optimal temperature range of 28-32 °C (82.4-89.6°F). Greatest forage production occurs during the summer. Typically, they are not cold-tolerant, requiring 12.78-15.56 °C (55-60 °F) soil temperature for high germination and hard frost -3.3 °C (26 °F) finishes their seasonal growth. These species have a C-4 physiology and anatomy, characterized by carbon fixation by two enzymes; RUBPcase (as with C-3 species) and phosphoenol pyruvate carboxylase (PEPcase), few mesophyll cells, and many bundle sheath cells resulting in lower digestibility.
Annuals complete their life cycle in one year. There are summer and winter annuals, indicating their time of planting (spring and fall, respectively).
Biennials live more than one year, indicating that they will overwinter if sufficiently winter-hardy, continuing to grow the following spring and summer.
Perennials have a multi-year life cycle ranging from short (2-3 years) to long-lived species (as much as decades).