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Fenugreek as a forage for cattle

Annual legume crop could replace alfalfa in some rations.


March 5, 2008
By Donna Fleury

Fenugreek is an annual legume crop, first grown in the early 1990s as a specialty crop in western Canada for seed. It is adapted to dryland growing conditions in western Canada, particularly the southern parts. New forage-type fenugreek cultivars have recently been developed at the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) Research Station in Lethbridge, Alberta and at the University of Saskatchewan. The dairy cattle industry is interested in finding out whether fenugreek is a suitable forage for lactating cows and the benefits it provides.

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Fenugreek haylage fields at the Edmonton Research Station, summer 2006. Photos Courtesy Of J. Montgomery, University Of Alberta.

 University of Alberta graduate student, Janet Montgomery initiated a study in 2006 to evaluate the growth potential and nutrient value of fenugreek grown in the Edmonton area for dairy cattle. “One of the reasons we wanted to study the potential for fenugreek as a forage for dairy cattle is because fenugreek maintains a high quality protein profile throughout the growing season,” explains Montgomery. “Similar to some pea varieties, fenugreek has indeterminate growth, which allows for greater flexibility of timing of harvest.” For example, growers can harvest their barley and triticale silage first, leaving fenugreek until later without reducing its quality.

Research at AAFC Lethbridge, led by Dr. S. Acharya, found that one cut of fenugreek was equivalent in dry matter to two cuts of alfalfa. Yields were doubled under irrigation. “Their initial research indicated that fenugreek silage has a similar nutrient composition to alfalfa silage with higher digestibility,” says Montgomery. “Therefore, dairy producers would have to supplement less, reducing their costs.” As a legume, fenugreek also fixes nitrogen during crop production, reducing fertilizer input costs. Fenugreek is reported to have early season frost tolerance, so seeding early is an option.

In 2006, two fenugreek cultivars, CDC Quatro and AAFC F70, were grown at the Edmonton Research Station. “We grew the two varieties in experimental plots to determine the growth characteristics of fenugreek and 10 acres that were harvested as haylage,” explains Montgomery. “We had planned to silage the 10 acres, but because the yields weren’t very high, we decided it would be better to make bales and haylage.” The variable weather conditions in 2006 resulted in a lot of leaf loss and shattering, with the haylage comprised mostly of stems and pods.

In 2007, three varieties of fenugreek were grown in field plots, AAFC F70, CDC Quatro and CDC Canagreen. Emerald Seeds, a seed supplier in Saskatchewan, has replaced CDC Quatro with CDC Canagreen because it is higher yielding. “We had planned to grow Tristar, the first forage cultivar of fenugreek developed by Acharya, but there had been some crop failures at the seed multiplication stage, so there wasn’t enough seed available.” Tristar, which can be grown for hay or silage, produces high biomass yield and high quality forage, does not cause bloat and contains growth promoting substances such as diosgenin.

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The research on fenugreek in north central Alberta is still quite preliminary.

“We also decided to try intercropping fenugreek with barley and triticale for silage,” says Montgomery. “We used a range of cereal seeding rates with fenugreek to see what kind of results we could get with intercropping and whether that might be a better fit for this area than straight fenugreek.” Montgomery also grew 50 acres of fenugreek for silage near Sherwood Park, Alberta. The fenugreek was seeded in mid May and the silage harvested in mid August. “The growing conditions in 2007 were more uniform and seemed better for fenugreek this year, resulting in better silage with leaves, pods and seeds.”

Montgomery has not completed the 2007 quality analysis to-date, but expects to find that although the fenugreek yields were not that high, the quality will be. Preliminary observations of the intercrop indicate the yields of the cereal alone were higher than when grown with fenugreek. Grown alone, fenugreek was shorter and more developed, with more branching and thicker stems. In an intercrop with cereal, the fenugreek grew much taller, as high as the cereal heads, and stems were thinner, which may increase quality. Montgomery is interested to find out whether the protein and fibre levels are different when comparing the fenugreek alone with the intercrop results.

Once the analysis is completed, Montgomery expects to be able to make some recommendations for dairy producers. “Our goal is to use fenugreek to replace alfalfa in a dairy ration,” explains Montgomery. “We still need more information about growing fenugreek in the Edmonton and north central Alberta area to achieve better yields.” Although alfalfa is a perennial crop usually producing two cuts per season, producers may find the higher quality and similar yields from one cut of the annual fenugreek a good option for their operation.

Other current fenugreek research at the University of Alberta complements Montgomery’s work, including rumen fermentation and metabolic feeding studies and a long-term lactation study. “Another student is conducting a sensory panel on milk quality and taste,” says Montgomery. “Fenugreek has a noticeable odour, so we want to know if that comes through in the milk at all. Previous studies have primarily focussed on feeding fenugreek seeds in the ration, not forage, so we are interested in the results.”

For dairy producers, fenugreek may prove to be a suitable forage and cropping rotation option. “The research on fenugreek in north central Alberta is still quite preliminary,” says Montgomery. “However, we’re hopeful that if we can find fenugreek is equal or superior to alfalfa as forage for lactating dairy cows, then producers can add another option to their feeding strategy.” -end-