By Ralph Pearce, CG Production Editor
If lower commodity prices have proved anything, it’s that the search in Eastern Canada for cropping options and alternative management practices is not limited to just corn, wheat and soybeans. Canola growers in Ontario’s Near North and northwestern Quebec are testing fababeans and growers throughout the east are experimenting with cover crops and cover crop blends in an effort to enhance their rotations.
In northwestern Ontario, there’s a relatively new forage that’s been tested at the Thunder Bay Agricultural Research Station (TBARS). Galega, also known as Oriental goat’s rue, is a perennial forage legume that Dr. Tarlok Singh Sahota has been testing for at least six years. Originally imported from Scandinavia, it’s been traced to a native species from the Caucasus region between Europe and Asia. Its availability here in Canada is limited: Galega is the only variety in cultivation, and Sahota has been securing his supply from a seed dealer in Finland.
Sahota first learned of galega in the mid-2000s. At first galega was tested simultaneously by Johan Rowsell and Sahota at the New Liskeard and Thunder Bay research stations. At that time, galega was yielding about 90 per cent of alfalfa, but it was also determined that the seeding rate may have been too low.
“I thought that we needed to give it another try, because we didn’t know what the optimum seeding rate was,” says Sahota. “And the seeding rate we had been using was up to 20 kg/ha, so I wanted to try seeding at 25, 35 and 45 kg per hectare.”
He found that 25 kg/ha (22.3 lbs./ac.) was optimum for forage production with galega, compared to 13 kg/ha (11.6 lbs./ac.), which is the standard he’s tested with alfalfa.
Galega boasts comparable feed values to alfalfa, and would make a good substitute or a blend with the standard forage. In test plots, Sahota has found some surprising attributes that put galega ahead of alfalfa.
Although it’s reported to do well in deep, loamy and well-drained soils, Sahota sees little reason why it wouldn’t do well in any soil types. The soils at TBARS are slightly acidic to neutral, and its performance was comparable to alfalfa, and was better in some aspects.
Sahota has found that galega is more winter hardy, more persistent and tends to grow faster during the early spring compared to alfalfa. That quicker growth can also help smother dandelions, although its ability to compete with other weeds is limited at early establishment. As the crop reaches the canopy stage, it does a better job of competing with weeds, and even in older stands it does well, something that alfalfa can’t do as it ages.
Another advantage with galega is its dense canopy growth and a stem that’s softer than that of alfalfa, maintaining a higher feed quality after the first bloom. Sahota has found that at Thunder Bay, it’s also ready for cutting about a week before alfalfa.
In bloom, its violet-blue flower provides quality nectar to attract honeybees — another attribute that’s shared with relative newcomers like sainfoin and phacelia. As a legume, galega can fix its own nitrogen, could produce reasonable amounts of biogas (when mixed with grasses and manure) and may even have a use as a bioremediation agent in soils that have been polluted by oil spills.
As a feed source, it’s also rich in carotenes, minerals and vitamins, including vitamin C, and it’s low in toxic alkaloids. It can be grown as hay or silage and in the northwest portion of Ontario, can be cut twice during the growing season.
“It can probably be cut three or four times in eastern or southern Ontario and Quebec,” says Sahota. “It also has better retention of leaves after harvesting and drying for hay, compared to alfalfa.”
In planting the crop, direct seeding is best, with good seed-to-soil contact. In his test plots, Sahota has found galega grows best on its own, although he has little doubt it could be grown as a companion to less-competitive grasses such as timothy or the fescues.
Growing galega at Thunder Bay, he’s also found that if left to seed, galega blooms can set pods, making it possible for Sahota to grow out his own seed. Pods are generally about four centimetres (1.5 inches) in length and contain five to eight kidney-shaped, yellow-green seeds, each about 2.5 to 4.0 mm long and 1.7 to 2.0 mm wide. It can be planted as early as possible in the spring but if it’s being grown for seed, it should be planted at a rate of four to 10 kg per hectare.
“We applied 44 kg of N, 20 kg of P2O5, 70 kg of K2O and 24 kg of S per hectare every year, on both alfalfa and galega,” explains Sahota. “The dry matter yield gain by galega during three harvest years (with a total of six cuts from 2012 to 2014) as compared to alfalfa seeded at 13 kg per hec-tare was 2,630 kg per hectare, which is about 880 kg per hectare per year higher than alfalfa.” (See Table 1.)
During that three-year period, the protein content in the first cut of galega averaged 26.1 per cent, up to 4.1 percentage points higher than alfalfa (figures cited in Table 1 are from 2013 only). In the second cut, there was no difference in the three-year results. Dry matter yield spread was 55 per cent in the first cut and 45 per cent in the second cut, with both values close to those for alfalfa. Cuts were made when a few of the blossoms were visible.
Asked if galega could be adapted in more southerly regions, Sahota doesn’t believe it would be an issue. If it grows well in Thunder Bay — and flourishes in Scandinavian climates and conditions — there’s little reason to believe it wouldn’t fare just as well, if not better, in southern Ontario or western Quebec. He does make note of the warmer temperatures and higher humidity values during the summer months.
“I haven’t seen any disease or pest problems (that can’t crop up in alfalfa) with galega at Thunder Bay,” says Sahota.
He emphasizes that he isn’t trying to supplant alfalfa as the forage choice for dairy producers — that was never his purpose. However Sahota is interested in adding diversity and “something new” to what’s possible for forage producers, no matter the region. And galega is just another option that he’s been testing.