Legume Inoculation Cut Fertilizer Need

Legumes are gaining importance in Manitoba agriculture. One reason is the ability of a well-nodulated legume to produce nitrogen, eliminating the need for commercial nitrogen fertilizer.

Nitrogen Fixation

Legumes form a unique relationship with rhizobia, a soil bacteria through which nitrogen is made available to the plant. In a process called nitrogen fixation, atmospheric nitrogen is taken from air in soil spaces and converted to a usable form. Since gaseous nitrogen is the most abundant element in the atmosphere and is continually replenished, the supply remains constant.


Nitrogen fixation occurs in the root nodule. Rhizobium bacteria from the soil enter the plant roots and multiply, eventually causing a swelling which forms the nodule. The shape and size of nodule varies with legume species.

Rhizobium requires specific host plants for nitrogen fixation to occur. Bacteria must be able to infect the root and effectively "fix" the nitrogen. Sometimes bacteria infect the root but are not able to fix nitrogen. In other situations, bacteria fix nitrogen but cannot enter the root, so nodulation does not occur.

The Need for Inoculation

Inoculation refers to the addition of effective rhizobia to legume seed prior to planting.

All legumes should be inoculated with rhizobia, even if the legume has previously been grown in the soil. Inoculation provides the most effective strains of bacteria for the type of legume.

Commercial inoculum is available for specific legumes:

  • alfalfa group - for alfalfa and sweet clover;
  • birdsfoot trefoil;
  • sainfoin;
  • cicer milk vetch;
  • pea group - field peas, garden peas, lentils;
  • clover group - for red, white and alsike clover;
  • lupins;
  • bean group;
  • fababeans; and
  • soybeans

Inoculation with the proper strain ensures early and effective nodulation and makes nitrogen available to the plant in the early growth stages.

Methods of Inoculation

There are three common methods to inoculate seed. The seed should be sown immediately after inoculation.

  1. Slurry
    Mix inoculum with water in amounts indicated on the package to form a slurry, then pour slurry on seed and mix well. If done properly, the seed will absorb the water leaving an even, dry coat of inoculum.  
  2. Adhesive Solution
    This method is a modification of the slurry method using an adhesive solution instead of water. The inoculum adheres to seed coated with this solution. The solution also contains nutrients which the nodule bacteria use for growth. While commercially prepared adhesives are available, a suitable solution can be made by mixing 2 tbsp. (25 ml) of corn syrup in 1 qt. (1 L) of water. Use this solution to make a slurry with the inoculum and apply using the slurry method.
  3. Dry Application
    This method is not recommended because so much inoculum is wasted. Dry application requires two to three times as much inoculum as the slurry method, with less successful results.

Pre-inoculated Seed

This method is a great time saver because seed is treated or coated with rhizobia by a seed processor or distributor and can be directly seeded. Successful nodulation, however, depends on proper application and storage techniques.

Successful Nodulation

Once seed is ready to be inoculated, certain management practices may influence the effectiveness of the bacteria.

Bacterial Cultures

Commercial inoculum is most effective when used before the expiry date indicated on the label. Inoculum should be stored in a refrigerator or other cool, dark place to maintain its viability.

Inoculated Seed

Inoculated seed should be sown as soon as possible. If this cannot be done the same day, place the seed in plastic bags and store in a cool, dark place for no more than two days. If seeding is delayed longer, re-inoculate seed.

Soil Conditions

Rhizobia bacteria will not survive in acid soils. Although acid soils are not usually a problem in Manitoba, lime should be applied before seeding where soil pH is low. Some rhizobia strains now available in the alfalfa group can fix nitrogen in acid soils. However, most Manitoba soils require only the regular strains of alfalfa rhizobia.

Inoculated seed should be sown into a moist seedbed as nodule bacteria cannot survive in dry soil. However, too much moisture can also be harmful. Rhizobia need oxygen to survive, and wet soil with reduced soil air levels may cause serious bacterial losses.

Seed Disinfectant

Generally, seed treatments used in Manitoba do not seriously harm bacterial cultures, but fungicide-treated seed requires special care. To ensure nodulation occurs, use two or three times the usual amount of inoculum.

Bacterial cultures should not be applied to seed treated with mercury or copper disinfectants, since these chemicals harm the bacteria. Instead, add inoculum to cracked wheat or sawdust and drill into the soil before seeding.

Checking for Nitrogen Fixation

To determine if nitrogen fixation is occurring, dig up a plant and cut a few of the nodules. If nodules are red or pink inside, fixation is taking place.

Crop Management

Proper treatment of bacterial cultures before and after inoculation leads to successful nodule formation. But remember, management practices associated with other crops must also be applied to the legume stand - legumes do not grow by nitrogen alone.


  • Inoculate all legume seed.
  • Purchase commercial inoculum specific to the legume being grown.
  • Store inoculum in a cool, dry place until use.
  • Use the slurry method of inoculation.
  • Inoculate seed immediately before seeding.
  • Sow inoculated seed in a moist seedbed. Careful seedbed preparation and good management practices are as important with inoculated legumes as other crops.