Birdsfoot Trefoil Offers Promise as a Forage Crop
In November 2012, I wrote an article about Birdsfoot trefoil, its growth and its importance specifically for Wyoming’s environments.
For most Wyoming producers, the terms forage and hay are almost synonymous with alfalfa. Alfalfa is a high yielding hay and pasture crop. However, just as with any other crop, the queen of the forages – alfalfa – has some limitations, too. Grazing alfalfa often results in gas accumulation in the stomach of cattle causing bloating problems. This gas accumulation makes it difficult for the animals to breathe, which can eventually lead to death of animals. Many producers lose their cattle because of this issue every year.
The alfalfa weevil is another major problem for alfalfa growers in Wyoming.
Birdsfoot trefoil, a perennial forage legume, has beautiful yellow flowers and a “bird’s foot” arrangement of pods. Birdsfoot trefoil is highly productive, has high nutritional value and has a long stand life. Its long stand life is due to the fact that it naturally reseeds itself. It performs well on soils too poor for growing alfalfa.
Birdsfoot trefoil also has special chemicals called tannins. Because of the presence of tannins in Birdsfoot trefoil, it does not cause bloat in livestock. Even more importantly, tannins improve protein absorption in livestock, thus improving animal performance. The improved protein absorption due to the presence of tannins reduces the amount of nitrogen excreted and lost in feedlots. This has great environmental benefits in the form of reduced pollution.
These chemicals are important in milk production in cows as well. Thus, feeding Birdsfoot trefoil to cows can increase milk production compared to alfalfa. The non-bloating characteristic of Birdsfoot trefoil makes it an ideal crop for producers who wish to graze it as a monoculture.
Grazing Birdsfoot trefoil as a monoculture can reduce the amount of time and resources needed to cut, bale and transport bales to be fed to animals.
Birdsfoot trefoil has very small seeds, and therefore, smaller amounts of seed are needed for a unit area as compared to alfalfa. The commonly-used seeding rate for Birdsfoot trefoil, 10 pounds per acre, is less than alfalfa, which can help in saving some money for producers.
Birdsfoot trefoil has problems as well. It is slow to establish because of its small seed size. The slow establishment makes weed management critical at the early stages of growth to get a good stand. It prefers soils that are slightly acidic, with a low pH, which is not very good for alfalfa growth.
Scientists at the Plant Sciences Department of the University of Wyoming (UW) have been conducting research over the past few years to identify forage legumes that can resolve some of the problems associated with alfalfa. Field studies are being conducted at the UW Research and Extension Centers at Sheridan and Lingle and also in a producer’s field to evaluate the potential of Birdsfoot trefoil as a forage legume crop.
A good emergence of Birdsfoot trefoil was observed after planting, but weeds initially dominated the stand. Fields were mowed to remove weeds. One mowing was enough to ensure a successful stand establishment. The mowing provided Birdsfoot trefoil a competitive advantage over the weeds and resulted in a well-established stand.
The forage yield, which was greater than 5,000 pounds per acre per year, and quality, at 26 percent crude protein and 195 relative feed value, of Birdsfoot trefoil were comparable with alfalfa.
Birdsfoot trefoil establishes well under Wyoming conditions. However, weed management is critical for better stand establishment. Birdsfoot trefoil produces high forage yield and high nutritional value, similar to alfalfa. With the additional benefit of being a bloat-free forage legume, Birdsfoot trefoil shows promise for use as a new forage legume crop for Wyoming producers.
Anowar Islam is an associate professor and the University of Wyoming Extension forage specialist in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources Department of Plant Sciences. He can be reached at 307-766-4151 or firstname.lastname@example.org.