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Laudable Legume: The Many Qualities of Birdsfoot Trefoil

Laudable Legume: The Many Qualities of Birdsfoot Trefoil

For many farmers and ranchers, producing high-quality forage from low-quality land is a major challenge. Problems dealing with soil fertility, drainage and pH can all dramatically reduce the amount of forage produced as well as restricting the use of preferred plants. One such preferred plant, alfalfa, is famous for being the predominate legume grown for cattle feed. Its high protein content and digestibility have made it the most widely cultivated forage legume in the world. However it has some problems. Alfalfa is very picky and doesn’t tolerate poor soil conditions very well. For areas with a high water table or other drainage issues, alfalfa struggles. Have a soil suffering from low fertility or low pH? Again, alfalfa is not a good choice. On top of these issues with soil quality, alfalfa has the potential to cause bloating in cattle. If only there was some kind of alternative to alfalfa that could handle poor soil quality and didn’t cause bloating… 

Tolerates Poor Soil Conditions

The solution can be found with birdsfoot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus L.). This long-lived herbaceous perennial legume, cultivated in Europe since the early 1900’s, has become a valuable forage crop here in North America. Its extensive root system comes complete with taproot and lateral roots, and is able to find adequate nutrients in infertile soil while at the same time showing a remarkable resistance to Phytophthora root rot, a disease devastating to alfalfa. Birdsfoot trefoil is able to grow in soils with a pH range of 5.5 to 7.5, extremes which are unsuitable for optimum alfalfa growth. Most cultivars of birdsfoot trefoil grow to a height of two to three feet and produce stems that are not quite as big around as alfalfa. On top of each stem the plant forms a yellow flower and seed pod. This flower and pod arrangement resembles a bird’s foot, giving the trefoil its name. 

A Non-Bloating Legume

trefoil by frankenstoenBut perhaps the most interesting and beneficial aspect of birdsfoot trefoil is its non-bloating properties. Bloating, also known as pasture bloat or frothy bloat, occurs inside a cow when gases from the fermentation process cannot be released by belching due to foam that has developed in the rumen. Highly digestible legumes, such as alfalfa, sometimes cause this foam buildup especially when the legumes are wet and the animal is not accustomed to such a rich diet. Usually cattle will stop grazing at the onset of bloat, but because the condition develops so quickly cows have been known to “eat themselves to death.” Without intervention, pressure from the rumen eventually causes breathing and heart failure. On the other hand, birdsfoot trefoil causes no bloating and is ideal for pasture grazing. 

Growing Birdsfoot Trefoil

Birdsfoot trefoil can be planted alone but is usually mixed in with pasture grasses. Together pasture grass and birdsfoot trefoil produce a very high quality, nutritious forage for cattle. Seeding should be done during the late spring or early summer, and like all seeding operations a carefully prepared seedbed is crucial. Seeds should be planted no deeper than ¼ inch. Grazing should only be allowed after the plants have grown at least eight inches high with 24 to 38 days between grazing. When harvesting birdsfoot trefoil for hay, it’s important to leave four to six inches of stubble for proper regrowth. Birdsfoot trefoil will also regrow from its own seed. 

Look for birdsfoot trefoil in our High Water Table or Alkaline Soils Pasture Blend, or contact us directly for a pure blend. Birdsfoot trefoil is an excellent alternative to alfalfa for areas where soil quality is marginal. Its non-bloating attributes and ability to tolerate a wide range of conditions make this a very impressive legume indeed.

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