Cicer milkvetch is a legume that hasn’t been used to its full potential in the past but the performance of improved varieties, such as Oxley II and Windsor, is leading beef producers to take a second look at this bloat-safe forage.
Neil McLeod, a cow-calf producer and Northstar Seeds sales manager for central Saskatchewan at Rosetown, calls cicer milkvetch the grazing legume. It’s bloat-safe, long-lived, fixes its own nitrogen and has the same nutritional value as alfalfa.
It can be hayed, but that’s not the most practical use for the crop. Cicer milkvetch has a soft, pliable stem so the plants fall over and grow along the ground rather than upright like alfalfa, explains McLeod. This growth habit makes it difficult to cut and you end up missing a lot of the growth.
McLeod has experienced this frustration first-hand because his milkvetch field is where it can’t be grazed until late fall. He routinely hays it in early July, then the cows pick up what he missed along with the regrowth in November and December. That’s when the soft stem is a real asset. It remains pliable and the plants retain their colour and leaves well past freeze up.
On the downside this legume doesn’t reach its full volume potential in most fields until the third year, and the seed has a very hard coat. McLeod says you’ll see 25 to 35 per cent germination in the first year after seeding, about the same in the second year, and the remainder will germinate over time. Dormant-season seeding in the fall does help to improve germination in year one.
“Because cicer milkvetch is a legume, producers often make the mistake of comparing it to alfalfa, but it’s not even close,” he says. “At maturity cicer milkvetch will produce about 80 per cent of the volume of alfalfa and because of the slower germination, it takes time to cover a field. If you have a 10-year plus plan for the field, that’s where cicer milkvetch fits in. If you have a five-year plan, don’t use it.”
It is a poor competitor in the year of establishment. He recommends sowing it into clean land or stubble, and applying milkvetch innoculant. For best results, avoid a cover crop. Broadcasting any type of forage is always less reliable than placing the seed into the soil because of the variable depth, which results in uneven germination.
McLeod says most producers sow a blend of cicer milkvetch and meadow bromegrass because both plants start off about the same time in the spring and regrow at a similar rate after grazing throughout the season.
Adding a bit of alfalfa to the mix can help with volume in the field the first couple of years while the meadow bromegrass and cicer milkvetch are building volume. But no more than a half pound per acre because higher seeding rates could create too much competition and interfere with establishment of the milkvetch.
The recommended seeding rate for alfalfa in normal legume-grass grazing mixtures is one pound per acre but when cicer milkvetch is the legume he usually recommends three pounds per acre along with five to six pounds of meadow bromegrass seed.
Being winter hardy and drought tolerant, cicer milkvetch is well adapted to all growing regions. It will establish and survive in dry years, but more moisture means more plant growth.
The ability to adjust its growth rate to variable growing conditions is the main reason why cicer milkvetch stands are so long lived on the Prairies.
You can expect to see an increase in plant density in most cicer milkvetch fields as the years go by unless it’s extremely dry for consecutive years. About the only way to kill a stand is to spray it out or, like meadow brome, put the cows on it too early in May before the plants have had a chance to start growing. Even at that, he’s aware of only one producer who lost the cicer milkvetch from a field that way and it was during a drought.
THE SOUND OF MONEY
Chad Haaland was sold on the merits of cicer milkvetch even before he sowed his first 500 acres in 2002 — and it hasn’t disappointed. In fact, the stands just keep getting better with age on the ranch near Hanley, Sask., where his dad runs 100 cows and he custom calves and pastures 250 purebred cows and custom grazes up to another 1,000 head.
“I don’t see that we will ever have to reseed it,” he says. “The original plants maybe die eventually, but it’s reseeding itself every year.” The cows are crazy for the pod clusters, so it’s nothing unusual to see seedlings springing up from the manure the following year.
What’s not so usual is the 90 per cent germination that occurred in year one on that first stand. All of the conditions cicer milkvetch likes lined up in its favour that spring, he explains. It was sown into standing cereal stubble with a John Deere no-till drill with disc openers after a pre-seeding burnoff. The dry conditions put a bit of stress on the seed and the land received a good three to four inches of rain the following week. That was the last rain of the year.
“The plants hung on, but we didn’t graze it until after dormancy, which is our usual practice with any new forage because the plants need time to get
established,” he says. The stocking rate was only a quarter to half the usual rate in 2003 because they had fewer cows. By the time he set up his custom-grazing operation the following year, the stand was so thick he couldn’t walk through it. It even tripped up his horse a time or two.
The Haalands now have 1,000 acres in cicer milkvetch. On their land, they sow it at two pounds per acre, which produces five to six plants per square foot in the initial stand, with six to eight pounds of meadow bromegrass and a bit of alfalfa. They also have mixes of cicer milkvetch with meadow bromegrass plus intermediate wheat grass and orchardgrass, and cicer milkvetch with crested wheat.
“If you want results in a year or two, it’s best to direct seed it right into the soil or sod. The primary goal is to get good soil-to-seed contact. If it doesn’t rain, the seed will be okay — it will just sit there until it does rain,” he says. “If you don’t need results right away, some people broadcast it and some feed the seed or cicer milkvetch screenings with grain or minerals.”
Haaland starts the grazing rotation on a cicer milkvetch-crested wheat pasture in late May or early June. He finds the cattle really prefer the crested wheat that early in the season, so they put very little stress on the legume. Their intensive rotational grazing system allows for 30 to 60 days rest between passes. It’s the second pass after the cicer milkvetch sets seed, from late July through September, when the cows really go for it.
The seed heads are three to four inches long in cone-shaped clusters of 10 or 20 pods and each plant will have four to five seed heads. Once they dry down the seeds in the pods make an unmistakable rattling sound as the cows graze through it — the sound of money, he calls it.
Depending on available forage, they have pastured the cows on cicer milkvetch pastures until Christmas. “That’s the wonderful thing. It doesn’t lose its leaves in the fall and the hollow stems retain moisture keeping it pliable and palatable to the cow,” he says. Though they’ve never done a feed test on the forage at that time of year, he has heard from others that the crude protein levels can be as high as 16 to 18. The loose consistency of the manure tells him that it does retain its protein value.
“I love it — a lot,” Haaland sums up. “It fits into the rotation so well and the cows walking on the mat are building up an organic matter base, which is improving soil health and moisture retention, making ideal conditions for new seed to start. We have a phenomenal catch on the hilltops where the cicer milkvetch is creating a canopy of shade so other plants are starting to grow there.”
Haaland’s annual pasture tour sponsored by Ducks Unlimited is slated for June 16. For more information about it or cicer milkvetch, contact Haaland at 1-306-544-2753 or McLeod at 306-831-9401.