University researchers think they've found a good solution for graziers looking to beat the summer pasture slump.

Illinois bundleflower is a fern-like, high-protein plant that normally grows 3-4' tall. Defying its name, Illinois bundleflower's heaviest populations are found in Kansas and Oklahoma. Yet it's been identified in prairies, pastures and roadsides from Alabama to Texas and north as far as Minnesota.

So says Lee DeHaan, who did his doctorate thesis research on the warm-season legume. DeHaan now works as a plant breeder for the Land Institute in Salinas, KS. But he and his University of Minnesota advisors identified several strengths that make the plant a potential good fit for pasture mixes:

  • It fixes nitrogen.

  • It grows well in the summer months, when cool-season crops slow.

  • It's highly palatable to livestock.

  • It's a heavy seed producer (about 800 lbs/acre).

  • It tolerates both moist and dry soils.

“I'm really excited about its potential,” says Paul Peterson, University of Minnesota extension forage specialist.

But, Peterson cautions, along with that list of strengths comes an equally long list of questions about how to manage the crop.

After a few years of pasture experience with Illinois bundleflower, Robb DeHaan, Lee's brother, offers some management advice. The crop is quite easy to establish, says Robb, a plant scientist at Dordt College, Sioux Center, IA. But it requires early weed control to reduce competition from velvetleaf, giant foxtail and pigweed.

“This past year, we grazed the cool-season grasses in May, allowing the bundleflower to take off in June. We grazed the pasture again the third week of June.”

The plant is definitely a new taste for cattle, he notes. But the leaves proved very palatable in the mix of big and little bluestem, Indiangrass and side-oats grama that was seeded with it back in 1999.

“We don't know if it can be cut more than once a season,” notes Peterson. That's one of the things he and fellow Minnesota researchers Craig Sheaffer, Nancy Ehlke and Don Wyse hope to find out over the next few years. The group also hopes to determine which grasses are most compatible with the legume and how well it yields.

Adds Lee, “We do know that this legume needs to be used as part of a grazing system and cannot be continuously grazed.”

Illinois bundleflower also shows promise as a seed crop. One food scientist is evaluating the seed for potential nutritional and nutraceutical properties. Preliminary work shows it has high levels of anti-oxidants. With its high protein content (30-38%), the seed could also be used for both animal and human consumption, says Lee.

But don't expect to be eating or even planting much Illinois bundleflower this season. Researchers agree it will be several years before the seed will be available and affordable for pasture use.

“Ultimately, it could be a multi-use species — grazed some years and harvested as a grain crop in other years,” says Lee.