“It would make a very good forage crop because it has diosgenin – something no other crop has. I call it the Ben Johnson compound because it is like an anabolic steroid that makes muscle.”
It’s hard to imagine a more interesting crop.
Grown for at least 4,000 years in India, fenugreek is one of the oldest-known medicinal plants.
The ancients used it to treat baldness, heal wounds, in head lice cures and to alleviate chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. It was also reputed to have bust enhancement and – coincidentally, aphrodisiac properties.
The seeds and leaves – dried or fresh – are called “methi” and are used to add zing to South Asian curry dishes. In Egypt, it is mixed with wheat and corn flour to make tastier bread and cookies, and in India, farmers add dried leaves to their stored grain to keep bugs out.
On top of all that, you can feed it to cattle. Fenugreek or “Greek hay” works well as a high-fibre, non-bloating, self-pollinating forage that contains disogenin, a naturally occuring steroid to enchance muscle growth, and an oxytocin-like compound which improves milk letdown. It is drought resistant, yields as much in a single cut as two of alfalfa, and maintains its quality throughout the growing season.
EASY TO GROW
Reputed to be as easy to grow as peas, European farmers use the nitrogen-fixing annual legume in their rotations as a fall or spring plowdown cover crop, or as a low-profile broadleaf in a multi-species intercropping mix. New varieties mature in as little as 100 days, and the seed pods are easily harvested.
So why are there only a couple of thousand acres seeded to it in Western Canada every year?
Dean Buchanan, a farmer near Crystal City, Manitoba likes to try new things. He was attracted to the fact that it was an annual that could be grown for one year without tying the field up long term.
He wonders why more people don’t grow it, guessing that it’s probably just because it is a relatively new crop that not too many people have heard about.
He seeded some as a trial on a few acres for grazing, but found that regrowth after the first grazing was disappointing.
“Had it grown back the next year for grazing, I would have used it again no problem. But one advantage over alfalfa is that you can leave it forever and you don’t lose the quality.”
He also planted 15 acres of the Canagreen variety for seed on contract, kept weeds out with Odyssey herbicide, and found that the combine handled it well with yields of up to 1,500 pounds per acre. There was so much straw left over that he ended up having to burn it because a double disc couldn’t cut through it.
Then last year, he planted the leftover seed with annual rye and barley for silage, and found that it performed well in the mix.
“It grew up straighter, trying to compete with the other plants. Once you walked in you could see it, you didn’t have to spread the barley to see that it was there,” he said. “It has a nice smell to it, like a spice aroma. The cows didn’t mind it at all.”
Blaine Sudom, who operates Emerald Seed Products in Avonlea, Saskatchewan, started growing fenugreek as a diversification experiment in the early 1990s. It worked well and he was able to create a good business that has been growing steadily ever since.
He now grows about 1,200 acres a year of the crop for seed, ground spice and nutraceutical uses such as protein and fibre supplements as well as industrial thickeners and polymers.
The health supplement market was the first big break for his operation, but the biggest potential market currently is in extracting the galactomannan resin from the seed as a replacement for imported guar and xanthan gum in food processing and industrial uses.
“It’s a fairly easy replacement for peas in a rotation. It’s a legume and it’s relatively economical to grow,” he said, adding that seed goes for about 35 to 40 cents a pound, and the recommended rate is 25 pounds per acre.
“It’s under $10 an acre for seed, so seed is pretty reasonable,” he said.
In Europe, it is widely grown, but fenugreek has yet to catch on among organic farmers in Canada, mainly due to the shorter growing season, and competition from the more popular sweet clover. “Unfortunately, we don’t have enough moisture to grow two crops a year of anything, as a rule.”
Another is the limited demand for seed, because the Canadian market is still in the development stages.
He recommends using the sweet clover inoculant strain, rhizobia meliloti, to boost the formation of nitrogen-fixing nodules. Just how much N is fixed is unknown, since researchers haven’t gotten around to testing the new crop, he said.
“We know we’re getting a response, because the crop isn’t starved for nitrogen. But we don’t have any really good data on that.”
Forage testing in the Peace River area found that it yielded more dry matter than alfalfa, with 16 to 18 per cent protein content. On the downside, its shallower roots leave it less able tap subsoil moisture deeper during dry spells, and the crop, though drought resistant, still needs rain to thrive.
Apart from one organic grower who encountered issues with a weed-borne cercospora blight, few disease problems have been encountered among his growers, he said.
The crop should be seeded as early in spring as possible, because it can resist frost in the early stages of development. Unlike perennials, it pops out of the ground quickly. It may seem to stall for a week or two at first, but eventually starts taking off.
Surya Acharya, a researcher at AAFC Lethbridge, has done extensive work on fenugreek since 1992. He was attracted mainly by the crop’s potential as a developer of lean muscle mass in livestock, which could help cattle producers ship heavier carcass weights.
“Like any new crop, I think it is difficult for people to adopt quickly,” he said. “It would make a very good forage crop because it has diosgenin – something no other crop has. I call it the Ben Johnson compound because it is like an anabolic steroid that makes muscle.”
Earlier varieties include Amber, Canafen, Quatro, with the latest variety to emerge the forage and silage variety Tristar. Maturing in 110 to 120 days, it yields roughly three to four tonnes per acre under dryland conditions. Because only one cut is need, the swaths are very heavy, and may take a longer to dry than alfalfa, he added.