Hairy vetch opens up opportunities

Hairy vetch has long suffered snickers and quizzical looks at the very mention of its name, but new research shows the legume has potential in Manitoba.

Scott Chalmers, a diversification technician with Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives, told producers at the annual Special Crops Symposium in Winnipeg that plant is a possible cover crop for sunflowers.

“It’s used classically as an organic plow-down,” he said. “Organic guys would grow this super-robust, green crop that fixes nitrogen and then plow it under — that would be their fertilizer the next year.”

Chalmers thinks the same qualities that make hairy vetch a solid choice for green manure also make it ideal for use as a cover crop in an intercropped system.

Field tests were begun last season using hairy vetch with sunflowers, but the final results were a bit inconclusive.

“The birds ate the results,” said the technician.

But before the birds cut the party short, Chalmers said researchers were able to collect SPAD readings from the test plots, which identify the amount of chlorophyll in a plant’s leaves.

“We measured sunflower leaves to see if there was a difference between having hairy vetch in the plot with it or not, turns out there wasn’t a difference, so that is good news,” he said.

That means the wiry legume isn’t competing with the sunflower for energy, said Chalmers, adding more work still needs to be done to determine what, if any, effect the practice has on sunflower yield.

More test plots are planned for 2013.

The researcher’s hypothesis is that not only does vetch squeeze out weeds at the crucial six-leaf stage of development in a sunflower’s life, it may also help reduce input costs for subsequent crops.

In more southern climates, some farmers are using hairy vetch with corn for just that reason.

“Corn is a very high-input crop, and if you just plant corn, and then you plant, say, wheat the next year, your wheat will be starved of nitrogen,” said Chalmers. “But if you have a legume component in there, your balance for the next year is offset.”

In fact it was the high cost of fertilizer in 2007 and 2008 that led him to the idea of using hairy vetch in the first place. The technician asked the University of Manitoba for some seed to try out and he quickly became hooked on hairy.

“I guess that’s when I fell in love with the crop,” he said. “We planted it and it was just robust and prolific, and a very unusual legume.”

Now he’s moved beyond just looking at the winding, climbing plant as a nitrogen fixer, Chalmers also sees an opportunity for the production of domestic hairy vetch seeds.

Currently, almost all seed comes from the United States, and price ranges between $2 and $3 per pound. That adds up considering it can take up to 35 pounds of seed per acre to achieve ground cover.

But if you’re looking to use hairy vetch for grazing, after it’s run its course as a cover crop, seeds are the last thing a producer wants.

“That seed can cause poisoning in livestock,” he said. But given that vetch is usually planted in the fall to achieve seed production, that shouldn’t be an issue for a crop that’s planted in the spring as a cover crop.

Grazing also takes care of residue, while adding additional nitrogen to the field via the livestock.

Chalmers notes the research into hairy vetch and sunflowers is still in the early stages, but said he wanted to get producers looking ahead to new possibilities, and other crop options.

“I want them to kind of open up their minds to how we can improve what we’re doing now, with some of the natural systems out there,” he said. “Maybe we have become too focused on the monocrop culture.”

About the author


Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.



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