Birdsfoot trefoil — an interesting legume


One of my favorite topics is forage production. Forages can be grasses, legumes, or brassicas raised for consumption of ruminants like cows, goats, and sheep, or pseudo ruminants like horses. One of my favorite forages is one that you may not have heard of, though you have absolutely seen, and this is Birdsfoot trefoil. Birdsfoot trefoil can be seen along the roadsides along highways from Clinton County to Fargo, North Dakota.

This legume grows well in soils with low nutritive values and can be an indicator of areas with low nitrogen content. For this reason, Birdsfoot trefoil can be a good forage to plant in poor soils to improve soil conditions over long periods of time. As a legume, Birdsfoot trefoil is a nitrogen fixing plant, so no applications of Nitrogen are needed.

From the nutritional standpoint, grazing full stands of Birdsfoot trefoil can add 3.5 pounds of gain on beef cattle, and can increase milk production by two pounds of milk per cow per day. One of the aspects that makes Birdsfoot trefoil so attractive as a protein source is that because of the presence of tannins in the plant, livestock will not bloat while eating this forage.

Although Birdsfoot trefoil yields considerably less than alfalfa, it is comparable to red clover if field conditions are good. This is a good forage for areas that are hard to seed, because stands can last quite a long time (over 10 years). There are different cultivars to choose from, some that are low growing for grazing scenarios, and upright growing varieties for hayfields. Yield can reach up to four to six tons per acre when cut for hay.

Birdsfoot trefoil can be a challenge to establish in fields with a lot of weed pressure, so starting from scratch after working the soil is the best option for establishment. Trefoil should not be cut below six inches, and you should cut the field when at least 30% of the plants are blooming. Birdsfoot trefoil does well in fall time forage stockpiling, as they hold maturity and quality after a frost. Stockpiling also helps increase the root reserves and increased stand longevity.

You should plant five to six pounds per acre when seeding alone, or five pounds per acre when seeding along with a grass. Birdsfoot trefoil planting should be handled similarly to alfalfa, where a firm clean seedbed is provided. Broadcast followed by cultipacker is the preferred method.

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