Birdsfoot Trefoil

Credit: 
Reg Newman, BC FLNR
Scientific name: 

Lotus corniculatus L.

Type: 
Agronomic Legume
Annual precip. min (mm): 
400
Annual precip. max (mm): 
600
Seed size: 
Medium
Seeds per kg: 
827,000
PR Suitability note: 
Birdsfoot trefoil is not noted for its winter-hardiness however, there are examples of long-lived stands in the Peace Region. Snow cover is important for winter survival. Birdsfoot trefoil may be worthy of consideration on sites that have insufficient drainage for alfalfa.
Key considerations: 
Birdsfoot trefoil can be used for hay but is better suited for pasture because of its non-bloat characteristic.
General Description: 

Birdsfoot trefoil is a perennial legume that does not cause bloat in grazing ruminant animals. It is highly adapted to grow in a range of challenging conditions including infertile soils, soils with high acidity or poor drainage, and poorly prepared seed beds.

It has a wide crown and taproot, intermediate in depth between alfalfa and red clover. Roots sometimes develop from older stems that have soil contact. It requires its own specific Rhizobium loti inoculant to fix nitrogen.

The plant produces many fine stems or branches from the crown, which can grow up to 75 cm (30 in.) long. Plants can be erect or prostrate. Birdsfoot trefoil has compound leaves with paired leaflets up the stalk and a single leaflet at the tip.

Flowers initially form on lower branches and continue up the stem. Flowers are a brilliant yellow and found in clusters of 2 to 8. After cross-pollination, each flower produces a cylinder-shaped pod 4 cm (11/2 in.) long with 10 to 20 seeds in each pod. The name is derived from the way the pods form at right angles to the stem, looking like a bird’s foot.

Origin: 
Native to Europe, North Africa, and parts of Asia. Canadian varieties of birdsfoot trefoil were developed and selected for winter hardiness, mainly from European and Russian sources.
Distribution: 
Not widely distributed in British Columbia except where it has been introduced for use on pasture. It has become naturalized in parts of the United States.
Uses: 
Can be used for hay but better suited for pasture, especially in higher rainfall areas. Has had some minor use for soil improvement in forestry contexts, and for roadside revegetation.
Optimal time of grazing use: 
A full canopy of leaves and ground cover must be produced before spring grazing. Cut or graze birdsfoot trefoil once per year during early bloom to balance optimum quality and quantity of forage yield.
Recovery after use (rating): 
M
Recovery after use: 
Requires 4 to 6 weeks’ recovery following grazing. If continually grazed, grazing may damage crowns. Should be rested in late summer and fall, and allow some seed to set at least every 2 to 3 years to allow for seed production and ensure stand replacement.
Forage yield (rating): 
M
Forage yield: 
Yields a lower quantity of forage than alfalfa, but of a higher quality longer into the growing season. Birdsfoot trefoil retains its quality longer into later maturity stages because of better leaf retention and indeterminate growth (i.e., response to current season’s growing conditions).
Palatability/Nutritional Value: 
Very palatable and non-bloating for ruminants. Crude protein at full bloom is about 9%.
Longevity (rating): 
M
Longevity: 
In pasture situations, stands may be productive for 2 to 4 years; however, some individual plants can be long lived.
Persistence (rating): 
M
Persistence: 
Persistence depends on crown survival. Snow cover improves winter survival. Stand persistence is improved by building up a seed bank or letting the forage set seed every couple of years. Birdsfoot trefoil has persisted for as long as 18 years in a mixed pasture in the Peace River region.
Invasiveness (rating): 
L
Invasiveness: 
Not considered invasive in British Columbia, but is considered weedy or invasive in some regions of the United States.
Competitiveness (rating): 
L
Competitiveness: 
May be more competitive under adverse conditions such as acidity or low fertility.
Erosion control (rating): 
L
Erosion control: 
Has limited use for controlling erosion, but is well suited to grow on poor soils.
Drought tolerance (rating): 
M
Drought tolerance: 
Has fair drought tolerance, because of its deep taproot.
Winter hardiness (rating): 
L
Winter hardiness: 
Winter survival is improved by deep snow cover and adequate rest before frost.
Soil texture preference (rating): 
FM
Soil texture preference: 
Adapted to moist sandy loam to clay soils. Adapted to waterlogged soils or conditions of poor fertility.
Flooding tolerance (rating): 
H
Flooding tolerance: 
Can tolerate up to 4 weeks of flooding, and tolerate wet soils throughout the year.
Salinity tolerance (rating): 
H
Salinity tolerance: 
Has good tolerance to salinity.
Acidity tolerance (rating): 
H
Acidity tolerance : 
Can tolerate soils with pH as low as 5.0, but it is more productive with pH 6.0 to 6.5.
Shade tolerance: 
Low
Ease of establishment (rating): 
L
Ease of establishment: 
Birdsfoot trefoil can be slow to establish. Seedlings can have weak roots that are sensitive to shade.
Application requirements: 
Seed 1/4 inch in depth or less due to small seed size. Apply seed without a cover crop as birdsfoot trefoil seedlings are poor competitors.
Suggested mixtures: 
Best seeded alone, or with less competitive or lower growing grasses (e.g., timothy) and legumes.
Management considerations: 
Inoculate seed to enhance nitrogen production. To improve establishment and longevity, do not graze or cut before full bloom in the first year of establishment. Leave 7 or 8 cm (3 in.) stubble after grazing. Do not graze too early in spring or in late summer, 6 weeks before first frost, and allow to set seed every 2 to 3 years. Birdsfoot trefoil is a great species choice to improve soil conditions without causing bloat in grazing livestock.