2014 Northeast Pasture Consortium Annual Meeting Northeast Pasture Research and Extension Consortium 2014 Annual Meeting, State College, PA, February 4-5, 2014

The final session of Tuesday afternoon was Birdsfoot Trefoil and Other Alternative Forages moderated by Mr. Donald Wild, Wild Acres Family Farm and King’s AgriSeeds, Inc. Dealer, Great Valley, NY.

Dr. Ed Rayburn, Extension Specialist-Agronomy, West Virginia University, presented Birdsfoot Trefoil An Alternative Legume. Dr. Rayburn started out with a disclaimer saying, “Birdsfoot trefoil is one of my favorite plants. We named our dairy goat herd pasture “Trefoil Meadows”. Birdsfoot trefoil is Lotus corniculatus, one of 100-176 Lotus species worldwide, many in the Mediterranean region. Sixty Lotus species are native to North America’s West Coast. Besides birdsfoot trefoil, two other species Lotus uliginosus (L. pedunculatus) – big trefoil and Lotus tenuis – narrow-leaf birdsfoot trefoil are used in agriculture.


Birdsfoot trefoil has a deep yellow flower and the characteristic birdsfoot-shaped seed pod cluster at maturity. The second part of its name, trefoil, comes from the 3 leaflets at the end of each petiole. It also has 2 leaflets at the petiole base, a lumping with clovers/trifolium. It is indeterminate in the growth so that it can be still flowering and also have seedpods if left unharvested past first seed set. As the seedpods dry, the pods twist open, popping out the seeds. A delay in harvest by haying or grazing to allow this to occur will prolong stand longevity as new plants will replace older plants that die as a result of insect root feeding/fungal root rot.

Trefoil seeds are smaller than alfalfa so a pound of trefoil seed per acre will leave 9 seeds per square foot versus 5 for alfalfa. Consequently, its seeding rate is usually 6-8 pounds per acre versus 8-12 pounds per acre for alfalfa using a drill on a firm seedbed. Pasture type birdsfoot trefoil is procumbent, lying somewhat flat to the ground with a runner appearance. Hay types are more upright for ease of mowing.

Birdsfoot trefoil advantages are:

  • Fix N from air (special rhizobia, Rhizobium loti)
  • Tolerates low pH, 85% of maximum yield at a soil pH of 5.0
  • Tolerates poor soil drainage
  • Tolerates excessively drained soils
  • Tap root
  • All growth types do well under rotational grazing
  • Low bloat potential
  • Tannins in some varieties, which confers
  • By pass protein to ruminants
  • Parasite control/tolerance
  • Stands long lived through seedlings
  • Thick stand can produce 400 lbs seed/acre
  • Seed viable in soil for over 20 years

Birdsfoot trefoil weaknesses are:

  • Low seedling vigor
  • Slow establishment
  • Plants short-lived, due to insect root feeding/root rot complex
  • Needs adequate rest interval
  • Hay types not tolerant to set stocking
  • Need to allow seed to mature and set occasionally.

Birdsfoot trefoil needs a 4-inch residual stubble height and be harvested at full bloom to get the best stand vigor unlike alfalfa. Its last seasonal harvest should be done no later than late August so fewer cuttings are possible to maintain the best stand vigor. A harvest interval of 6 weeks after first cutting will have the plant at full bloom and give optimal yields. Rotational grazing gives the most days of grazing per season, over 220 days versus between 182 and 198 days under continuous grazing. Average daily gain was nearly identical for the two stocking methods, but 20-40 more days of grazing under rotational stocking. Pasture forage yield of birdsfoot trefoil was 3.33 tons/acre for Viking, an up-right trefoil, and 2.81 tons/acre for Empire, a recumbent trefoil. Hay yields were 4.18 tons/acre for Viking and 3.59 tons/acre for Empire.

Dr. Rayburn went on to describe the pasture pharmacology of birdsfoot trefoil. Trefoil produces condensed tannins (CT). CT complex with soluble protein in the rumen which reduces protein/bloat foam so bloating by ingesting trefoil does not occur as it does on other legumes. This reduces protein digestion in the rumen which allows protein digestion in the lower gastrointestinal tract. This provides high quality amino acids directly to the animal. CT are polymers of flavanols. CT accumulate in the vacuole of the epidermal and sub-epidermal layers of the leaves (also fruits, bark, seeds, roots). CT are produced by dicotyledonous plants so grasses being monocotyledons do not make them. CT are a chemical defense mechanism in plants (decreases herbivore intake). CT concentration in plants is affected by genotype, plant development, environment/season, and herbivory. CT can also affect the development of infective helminth larvae (worms) in the feces host animals. CT may enable livestock to resist helminth parasites by providing bypass protein as well. In summary, birdsfoot trefoil tannins provide low bloat potential, bypass protein, and parasite inhibition/tolerance. It just needs some attention to detail in keeping it thriving in our pastures and not be treated the same as other legumes.

Mr. Don Wild was the second and last presenter of the afternoon on birdsfoot trefoil (BTF) and other alternative forages. He gave a History of Birdsfoot Trefoil Production in the Champlain Valley of New York and Vermont. It originated in Europe, Asia, Mediterranean Region. It was introduced into the US in the early 1900s. It is a long-lived, deep rooted legume suitable for hay and pasture in areas with drainage problems or low soil pH. It will not out-yield alfalfa on better drained soils with high water-holding capacity and an optimal pH of 6.5 to 7.0. He listed many of the same characteristics as Dr. Rayburn did, but included that BTF has nutritive value equal to or greater than alfalfa. As the plants mature, forage quality is maintained better. Regrowth of BTF occurs on the lower stems/leaves whereas alfalfa occurs from the crown. If harvested too short (\<5-6 inches), regrowth will be retarded. Another difference is when BTF is harvested, the nitrogen-fixing root nodules die. This further retards regrowth. Seed rate is 4-6 lb/acre at a quarter to a half inch deep; compact soil with a culti-packer type drill.


Ten to 15 seeds are borne in long cylindrical pods which turn brown to black at maturity. Average 5-6 pods (1-1.5 inches long) arranged at right angles to the flower stem that radiate out from the stem, thus giving the appearance of a bird’s foot. A very narrow seed harvest window exists as seedpods shatter easily on any impact. BFT has many well branched stems arising from a single crown. Stems may reach a height of 25-35 inches and are smaller in diameter, and less rigid, than alfalfa.


  • Empire: Low growing, often for pasture.
  • Viking: Upright growth, suggested for hay production.
  • Norcen: Often considered a hybrid for multiple use.
  • Pardee: Variety developed by Bill Pardee (Cornell) and released in
  • A high yielding and persistent trefoil variety that is resistant to Fusarium Wilt.

Fusarium Wilt is a soil borne disease resulting in the rapid wilting, root discoloration, and plant death in seeding year stands of Birdsfoot Trefoil. The direct result of the decline of the once thriving trefoil seed industry in the Lake Champlain Valley of New York and Vermont in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This disease showed up in Erie and Wyoming Counties (Western NY) in the 1990s. It was not until 2009 when a Cornell plant pathologist determined the characteristics and biology of the fungus that produced these symptoms in trefoil. This unique biological strain of Fusarium oxysporum they named as form species loti to denote its pathogenicity to trefoil. Isolates collected from wilted birdsfoot trefoil plants caused severe wilting and root discoloration in greenhouse-grown BFT plants. A low level of disease occurs in some pea plants but no disease in alfalfa, red clover, dry bean, or soybean plants. Thus the trefoil wilt pathogen found in parts of NY and VT appears to be a unique biological strain with a limited host range. Movement of infested hay and soil will most likely occur in the future, resulting in spreading the pathogen to other regions.


The “Champlain Valley Seed Growers Cooperative” was incorporated on June 11, 1948 in Essex, New York. Their headquarters was located in Westport, NY, Essex County. Membership consisted of both dairy and field crop producers on both sides of Lake Champlain. Chairman for many years was Rich-ard Sherman and advisor was Ray Bender from Cornell Coop. Extension and UVM. Plantings of certi-fied small grains (soft and hard winter wheat and oats) and certified Birdsfoot Trefoil (BTF) were their main emphasis. They planted seed production fields with straight BTF or BTF with cool season grasses. First cutting was cured and harvested for hay; the second cutting was for seed production. Yields may reach 300 lbs. per acre if harvested timely. Common varieties were Viking, Empire and unnamed. Seed marketed through the Co-op or used on farm. Fusarium Wilt decreased production in the Valley by the late 1970s and early 1980s. With BTF not being able to survive past the seeding year, the cooperative disbanded in the early 1980s.

Mr. Wild’s second presentation was Alternative Forages for Grazing. He gave these alternatives:

  • Grazing Corn: Specifically developed for grazing. Begin strip grazing when tassels appear. Stagger plantings to prolong supply of grazable corn.
  • Small Grains and Mixtures with Small Grains:
  • Oats – Wheat – Rye – Barley : For Grain or Grazing
  • Forage Oats
  • Triticale
  • Oats plus Peas
  • Oats and Annual Ryegrass
  • Summer Annual Grasses (BMR, non BMR, gene 6, etc.)
  • Forage Sorghum
  • Sorghum-Sudan
  • Sudangrass
  • Grain Sorghum
  • Millet (Pearl, Japanese)
  • Brassicas
  • Appin, Barkant, or Purple Top Turnips
  • Rape
  • Swede
  • Above seeded with oats, triticale, wheat, etc.
  • Clovers
  • Crimson Clover
  • Common Medium Red
  • Others and combinations for cover crops or short term.
  • Cover Crops and Specialty Items that can also be grazed.
  • Annual Ryegrass
  • Italian Ryegrass
  • Daikon Radish, Nitro-Radish
  • Hairy Vetch
  • Chicory