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Birdsfoot Trefoil Offers Benefits as a Non-Bloating Forage Legume

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

In December 2015, I wrote an article titled, “Birdsfoot trefoil seems to be a promising forage crop for Wyoming producers.” In that article, I discussed and compared birdsfoot trefoil with alfalfa.

Although alfalfa is a high-yielding hay and pasture crop, often called the queen of the forages, it has some limitations.

For example, grazing alfalfa often results in gas accumulation in the stomach of cattle, causing bloat problems. Excess accumulation of gas makes it difficult to breathe for the animal leading to death in severe cases. Producers lose their cattle because of bloat problems every year.

Another major problem for alfalfa growers is alfalfa weevil, which is very extensive this year in Wyoming.

Birdsfoot trefoil is a perennial forage legume that is highly productive, very nutritious and has long stand life. Its long stand life is related to the fact that it naturally reseeds. Birdsfoot trefoil performs well on soils that are not suitable to grow alfalfa.

Additionally, birdsfoot trefoil contains tannins, which are chemical compounds that prevent bloat problems in livestock. Tannins improve protein absorption in livestock, hence improving animal performance and reducing the amount of nitrogen excreted and lost in feedlots. As a result, this legume provides great environmental benefits in the form of reduced pollution. Because of the non-bloating characteristic, birdsfoot trefoil is an ideal crop for producers who wish to graze it as a monocrop.

Tannins are important in milk production in cows, as well. Compared to alfalfa, feeding birdsfoot trefoil to cows can increase milk production.

Birdsfoot trefoil can also be grown in mixture with grasses.

While birdsfoot trefoil shows several advantages, it has some problems, as well.

The number one problem is the poor establishment. Birdsfoot trefoil is slow to establish because of its small seed size. During the early phase of establishment, seedlings are not very competitive. Because of less competitive ability and the slow establishment, weed management is critical at the earlier stages to get a good stand.

Scientists in the Plant Sciences Department of University of Wyoming have been conducting research on birdsfoot trefoil for last few years, with a special emphasis on establishment. For example, two field studies were conducted at James C. Hageman Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension Center (SAREC) at Lingle and at a producer’s farm in Torrington, aiming to determine the effects of planting method, cutting frequency and variety on growth, yield and nutritive value of birdsfoot trefoil.

The Lingle study had three treatments using three cultivars, three planting methods and three cutting frequencies. The varieties Leo, Norcen and Bruce were planted using a clean-tilled method, in standing wheat and in wheat stubble. They were then cut once, twice and three times in a growing season.

The Torrington study was at a producer’s large field and had two treatments, using the same three varieties and three cutting frequencies as in Lingle.

Results from these studies showed that the clean-tilled method had the highest dry matter (DM) production, and all varieties used in the study performed equally well at both locations in respect to growth, yield and quality.

Three cuts in a growing season produced the highest DM. However, two cuts in a growing season was economical.

Forage production and nutritive values of birdsfoot trefoil were high and comparable to values found in alfalfa for this region. The average DM production for alfalfa in the region is 5,700 pounds per acre, and birdsfoot trefoil production hit 5,000 pounds per acre.

Birdsfoot trefoil can be established successfully under Wyoming conditions provided that appropriate management practices are in place, especially if weeds are controlled during establishment phase.

Birdsfoot trefoil shows promise to be a good alternative to alfalfa, particularly in conditions where alfalfa is not suitable to grow.

For more information, contact Anowar Islam, an associate professor and the University of Wyoming Extension forage specialist in the Department of Plant Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, at 307-766-4151 or

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