Birdsfoot trefoil is a challenge to grow and harvest, but the perennial can prevent bloating in grazers
From a distance it might just seem like another field of yellow canola, but get up close and you will see something that looks quite different.
Birdsfoot trefoil, although not widely grown for seed in Manitoba, is a yellow-flowered legume offering benefits to pasture-grazed animals.
A new field of the picturesque seed crop was one of the first stops on the Manitoba Forage Seed Association’s summer crop tour.
“This is my first time growing it,” said association member Brent Qually, who farms just west of Winnipeg. “I just thought I would give it a try, so now we will have to wait and see what happens.”
The crop can be grown on a wide variety of soil types, including heavier, wetter soils, Qually said.
His 120-acre section was seeded with flax in 2011, and then underseeded with birdsfoot trefoil. If all goes well, the perennial legume should produce 150 to 200 pounds of clean seed per acre this fall.
“I’ve always been interested in growing it, but it is one of the riskier things you can produce in Manitoba,” said Qually.
Harvesting can be especially tricky and requires precise monitoring of conditions and humidity, said Heather McBey of the Manitoba Forage Seed Association.
“When it’s ready but gotten too dry, you can hear the seeds going, pop, pop, pop,” she said.
That’s not a good sound — it means seed pods are bursting open and spilling their contents on the ground.
Qually said he is hoping his first harvest goes smoothly, but expects there will be lessons learned along the way about how to best harvest the tiny seed.
Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives recommends harvesting when two-thirds to three-quarters of the seed pods have turned brown, and cutting fields when they are slightly damp to reduce shattering.
However, growing a nitrogen-fixing perennial has its benefits as well.
“It’s cheaper on the operations side, but a little more intense on the management end,” said Qually.
Pollination is also key, the seed producer added. He is using approximately one honeybee hive every two acres.
Although only 4,720 acres of certified birdsfood trefoil seed were grown in Manitoba last year, interest in the plant as a component of hay and pasture is growing.
“It’s a non-bloat legume, so even if it’s mixed with alfalfa, cattle won’t bloat,” explained Bragi Simundsson, owner of Prairie Grass Fed Meats in Arborg.
The cattle and sheep producer is one of the few birdsfoot trefoil seed producers in the province, and also uses the plant in his pasture land.
“It can work very well in areas where there is a lot of moisture,” said Simundsson, adding there has been no shortage of that in the Interlake in recent years.