Legumes belong to the plant family Fabaceae, the bean family, and characteristically have a legume or pod fruit. Most legumes are also characterized by their ability to form root nodules that contain symbiotic nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Legumes are valued for their high forage quality, as well as for their use as green manure crops, but require more intensive management than grasses. Animal agriculture in the future must have high-quality forage crops that also maintain or improve environmental quality, and most legumes fit these criteria. There are about 12,000 species of legumes grouped into more than 500 genera. The most common genera from a temperate forage standpoint are Medicago (lucerne or alfalfa), Trifolium (clovers), and Lotus (trefoils). Woody legumes are used as browse by ruminants.

Legumes are not only a source of forage for domesticated animals, but also an excellent source of nutrients for native wildlife. Legumes such as birdsfoot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus L.) are used extensively for mined-land reclamation, revegetation, and other soil stabilizing situations. Their popular use for stabilization and revegetation of roadsides has been curtailed, however, because the forage attracts wildlife to the roadside. Some annual legumes, such as cowpea (Vigna unguiculata L. Walp.) (also known as southern pea and blackeye pea), can be used as a forage crop, but are primarily used as vegetables or grain crops in tropical and subtropical regions of the world.

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