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Topics : Species and Forage Variety Trials : Species Fact Sheets : Birdsfoot Trefoil

Species: Birdsfoot Trefoil

Additional birdsfoot trefoil information via the Forage Information System (FIS)


Characteristics & Adaptation of Birdsfoot Trefoil

Production of high-quality forage for cattle and sheep has traditionally been difficult on marginal lands in Pennsylvania and New York. Soils with few limitations are generally sown to alfalfa. Soils with low pH, poor drainage, poor native fertility or fragipans prone to heaving are not suited to alfalfa production (Table 1). Birdsfoot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus L.) is a forage legume that is more tolerant of these adverse production conditions.

Birdsfoot trefoil is a perennial legume that is adapted to production on poorly drained, low pH soils. It can reseed itself, is resistant to Phytophthora root rot and numerous alfalfa insects, responds well to fertilization and does not cause bloat in animals. These characteristics have resulted in its expanded use in the northern United States and southern Canada where production of other forage legumes is limited. Trefoil has traditionally been used in forage grazing systems. Varieties are now available that are suitable for hay production.

Trefoil stems are smaller in diameter and less rigid than alfalfa stems and may grow to a height of 18 to 20 inches. Each yellow flower (4 to 8 per stem) produces one seed pod. Seed pods are at right angles to the flower stalk and resembles a bird's foot, hence its name. Its root system consists of a tap root with numerous lateral branches predominantly located in the upper 15 inches of the soil profile.

As with other forage legumes, trefoil is most productive on fertile, well-drained soils with near neutral pH. However, it has the ability to produce relatively high yields and quality on land that is marginal for alfalfa production. Trefoil can be grown on low pH (5.5) soils and will tolerate short periods of flooding with less yield reduction than alfalfa. It can also tolerate periods of drought, which makes it suited for production on both sandy and clay soils.

In soils that are well drained and have good fertility, birdsfoot trefoil will not yield as well as alfalfa. Yields usually are 50 to 80% that of alfalfa in these soils. Therefore, the site in which trefoil is to be grown should have limitations which make alfalfa production difficult.

Adapted Birdsfoot Trefoil Varieties

About 25 varieties of birdsfoot trefoil are currently available in the United States and Canada. Birdsfoot trefoil varieties are generally characterized by growth habit into two types, Empire and European. Both types are referred to as "broadleaf" trefoils.

Empire-type birdsfoot trefoils are better adapted for use in grazing situations since they have fine stems, prostrate growth and indeterminate growth habit. The Empire types are also slower growing during establishment and regrow more slowly following harvest than the European types. Dawn and Empire are high- yielding Empire types that have performed well in Pennsylvania tests.

European-type birdsfoot trefoils are better adapted to hay production practices since they are more erect, establish faster and regrow faster after harvest. Viking, a European type trefoil, has traditionally been a high-yielding variety when produced for hay in Pennsylvania and New York. Newer varieties Fergus, Norcen and Tretana have production attributes similar to Viking, and also tend to persist better under more vigorous harvest management. This characteristic may allow three cuttings per year in some areas of Pennsylvania and New York.