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Cicer Milkvetch - Frequently Asked Questions

 
 
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 What is cicer milkvetch and what does it look like?
Cicer milkvetch (Astragalus cicer L.) is a cool-season, non-bloating, perennial legume used for forage production. It is an introduced species, brought over to North America from Europe and Russia. In Alberta, it is primarily used for pasture, though it is quite suited for inclusion in mixtures with cool-season grass species for hay use also. Under the right management and growing conditions the plant is long-lived and highly competitive.
This forb (broad-leafed plant) typically spreads out with trailing stems. Growing ends may be upright. Stems can reach 4 feet (120 cm) in length, and stand height may reach about half of that.

Stems are hollow, coarse, and succulent. The rooting system consists of a short, thick taproot and vigorous, rhizomatous, creeping roots. While the taproot rarely exceeds 3 feet (1 m) in good conditions, the creeping roots can extend to allow the plant a root diameter of at least 4 feet (1.2 m).

Leaves are made up of 13 to 27 leaflets that are paired up the stem except for a single terminal leaflet at the top, and are up to 6 inches (15 cm) long. The floral heads contain up to 40 pale-yellow to white flowers attached to stalks that connect them to a common stem. These heads develop from buds between the leaves and stems, enabling the stem to continue growing for new flower heads to emerge over an extended period of time.

Seedpods are up to 3/5 inch (15 mm) long, appear inflated, green to slightly red, and turn black and tough at maturity. The pods have up to 12 bright yellow to pale green seeds that are about twice the size of alfalfa seeds. These pods do not shatter easily, and the seed coat is hard and very resistant to moisture. Scarification of the seeds is required to ensure adequate germination.

Where does cicer milkvetch grow best?
Cicer milkvetch is adapted to the Black, Dark Brown, Grey Wooded and irrigated areas of Alberta. Some parts of the Brown soil zone with adequate moisture are also ideal for this legume. Adapted to a wide range of soil textures, with coarse soils being most ideal for spreading its rhizomes, cicer milkvetch also needs good internal soil moisture and drainage to grow.

Drought tolerance is good for cicer milkvetch, but because it has a shallower taproot, it is not as tolerant as alfalfa. With moderate tolerance to excess soil moisture, it can only tolerate flooding during the growing season short-term. It prefers calcareous soils, but will also grow on moderately acidic and alkaline soils (pH 6.0 to 8.0). It's very intolerant of highly acidic soils. It also has low to moderate tolerance to soil salinity.

What are the seeding requirements for cicer milkvetch?
Cicer milkvetch has a reputation for being difficult to establish. This legume tends to have a high percentage of hard, waxy-coated seeds, which are impermeable to water or air. Scarification should be done before seeding to ensure germination occurs soon after. However, seeds must be put into the ground as soon as possible (within one week) because seed viability quickly diminishes after scarification. Scarified seeds tend to have a quicker germination time than non-scarified seeds.

Seedbeds must be well cultivated, uniform, and firm before seeding to get good results. It is important to seed shallow at no more than 1/2 to 3/4 inches (1.5 to 2.0 cm) deep, and delay seeding until seedbed temperatures are a minimum of 18ºC. Unlike alfalfa or sainfoin, cicer milkvetch requires higher seedbed temperatures for good germination and emergence.

It is best to establish seeds without use of a cover crop. These can vigorously outcompete with the slow-to-establish cicer milkvetch seedlings. Weed control using non-residual and non-selective herbicides (such as glyphosate) prior to seeding is also very important for the same reasons.

Cicer milkvetch can be sod-seeded as long as the existing stand is controlled with a non-selective herbicide prior to seeding. This legume can also be seeded with grasses, but legume content will be less than in a monoculture stand, both due to a lower seeding rate and more competition with the germinating grasses; in some cases, cicer milkvetch that has been seeded into an existing stand may take two to three years to finally emerge; possibly less if using scarified seeds.

What seeding rates should be used?
Seeding rates for cicer milkvetch should be based on pure live seed (PLS). Suggested seeding densities are 50 to 90 PLS seeds/meter (15 to 27 PLS seeds/feet) for row seeding and 300 to 400 PLS seeds/m2 (28 to 37 PLS seeds/ft2) for broadcast seedlings. The final bulk seeding rate will vary, reflecting variables such as row spacing, seed quality and seed amendments. Seeding rates can be developed with the use of the "Forage Seed Mixture Calculator" on Alberta Agriculture’s Ropin' the Web website (www.agric.gov.ab.ca).

Can cicer milkvetch be used for hay?
Nutrient value and animal intake of cicer milkvetch hay is generally equal to alfalfa when harvested at a similar stage of maturity. Due to the higher leaf-to-stem ratio (40 percent higher than alfalfa) and leaf retention during cutting and baling, protein content in cicer milkvetch hay can exceed that of alfalfa.

Cicer milkvetch also begins growth three weeks later in the spring than alfalfa. Also, re-growth under hay management is slower than alfalfa. As result, hay yields in two- or three-cut systems are lower than alfalfa but comparable to alfalfa in areas with primarily one harvest per season.

Cicer milkvetch in a pure stand is more difficult to cure for hay than other legumes. Leaf and stem growth continues during flowering, resulting in a higher moisture content at harvest. Hay conditioners should be used when cutting cicer milkvetch to reduce drying time. Also, seeding this legume into a mixed stand with compatible grass species such as meadow brome will help with drying time.


Where does cicer milkvetch fit in a pasture system?
As a non-bloating legume, cicer milkvetch is flexible in grazing systems in that it can be used as a pure stand or as part of a legume-grass mixture. Cicer milkvetch is compatible with grasses such as meadow brome, hybrid brome, orchard grass, timothy, and tall fescue. Its creeping root system allows it to remain competitive in mixed stands, allowing it to regrow more quickly than in a hay production system.

Cicer milkvetch’s best forage growth occurs in mid-summer. This growth pattern suits it for use as a source of summer grazing or even as stockpiled fall pasture. Cicer milkvetch is more dependent on residual leaf material to support new growth than alfalfa. A rotational grazing system that provides rest periods of five to six weeks is recommended in pasture systems.

For more information:
Cicer Milkvetch - Plant Characteristics
Forage Species
Perennial Forage Establishment in Alberta
Forage Seed Mixture Calculator

References:
Cicer Milkvetch - Plant Characteristics - Alberta Agriculture
Cicer Milkvetch for Western Canada
Astragalus cicer L. - FAO
Cicer Milkvetch Plant Guide

Prepared by Karin Lindquist, Ag Info Center, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry

 
 
 
 
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For more information about the content of this document, contact the Ag-Info Centre.
This information published to the web on March 9, 2007.
Last Reviewed/Revised on August 2, 2017.