The Benefits of Growing Vetch for Livestock

Hairy vetch, weed or feed? The advantages of allowing a weed to grow and prosper.

People who visit Oak Hill are often surprised by the weediness. (That's a word, right?) Most don't say anything, but I know they're thinking it. You won't find a beautifully manicured lawn here. In fact, we never planted grass; this used to be a cattle pasture - and unfortunately I think the best Bermuda grass on the place grows in my garden.

Those who do mention the weeds are reminded that “a weed is simply a plant you don't know what to do with.” Most – maybe all - weeds are beneficial in some way: some are medicinal, others are edible, some are important for pollinators, and still others improve soil health. And nature abhors a vacuum, so if you're not growing something on purpose, you'll end up growing other things on accident.

Our “lawn” includes curly dock, wild onions, dandelions (my dad would be appalled!), both narrow- and broad-leaved plantain, shepherds purse and many other “weeds” as well as native grasses. We mow it all down to make it look semi-civilized. What we mow down goes in the compost pile.

The good part is that we don't have to spend a lot of time or water maintaining our “lawn” other than keeping it mowed. It survives our hot, dry Oklahoma summers, although it does get a bit crunchy at times.

Hubby's riding mower and my self-propelled mower don't reach right up against the fenceline and into the corners, so the weeds thrive there. But I have to admit that I rather like the wild edges, and I let them grow on purpose. Those weeds are nutritious treats for my goats and chickens.

My chickens love chickweed in spring and the seedy stalks of curly dock in the fall. The goats love... well... all the plants except the grass. I'd love to have a huge pasture for the goats, but we don't have the right fencing for that. Barbed wire and goats don't mix. So they keep their enclosure neatly trimmed, except for the grass.

Hairy vetch flowers. This plant has almost as much protein as alfalfa.

Hairy vetch, weed or feed? The advantages of allowing a weed to grow and prosper.

Right now the vetch is growing up the fences like crazy. It's an attractive plant with pretty purple flowers that bloom in spring. It grows wild here, but you can buy seeds for it; it's grown as a cover crop, as pasture, and to prevent soil erosion on roadsides and steep banks.

Vetch is a weak vine that climbs up other weeds and along fences. As well as growing on our fenceline, there are several patches in our pasture, down the road and along the highways, where its purple flowers against the green foliage are a pretty sight. Without something to climb, vetch can reach heights of about one foot, but grows much higher with a form of support, such as a fence.

Hairy vetch, weed or feed? The advantages of allowing a weed to grow and prosper.

The flowers are small but I think they're showy. The branches have curly tendrils that find and cling to fences and other plants.

Hairy vetch (Vicia villosa) is a legume that's related to peas and beans. Like its pea and bean relatives, vetch fixes nitrogen in the soil by converting nitrogen in the atmosphere into a form the plants can use. This article in the Washington Post even talks about growing vetch as a cover crop before planting tomatoes, promising healthier and higher-yielding tomato plants. If you're interested in growing it on purpose, you'll find planting instructions for hairy vetch in this article by Gardening Know How.

My garden is all about tomatoes, so I'm considering gathering seeds from this year's wild-growing vetch and sowing them in the fall in the raised bed that will house next year's tomatoes. I rotate my garden crops each year by moving each “unit” (vegetables that grow well together as companion plants) from one raised bed to the next, so I know in advance which one will grow tomatoes the next year. (This saves my brain cells, by the way: I only have to figure out what should go where once.)

The benefits of growing hairy vetch for livestock.

Later in the season, the vetch dries out and the seed pods turn black.

Hairy vetch, weed or feed? The advantages of allowing a weed to grow and prosper.

Supposedly the leaves, shoots and pods are edible by humans and livestock alike, and taste rather like peas. They can be eaten raw, but most of the information I read online says that they are also good when steamed for five minutes or so, like other leafy greens. 

Disclaimer: Remember, before using this or any herb or plant, please research it fully.
You are responsible for your own health.

Hairy vetch, weed or feed? The advantages of allowing a weed to grow and prosper.

Vetch is grown in many areas of the country and makes a high-quality hay when grown alone or mixed with small grains. It can also be used in grazing, although it is best used in a rotational grazing setup since it doesn't tolerate being grazed close to the ground very well.

But besides being pretty, I let the vetch grow so I can feed it to my goats. The protein value of vetch is just slightly lower than that of clover and alfalfa, and my goats absolutely adore it. I gather it by the armful and toss it over the fence where the goats are anxiously waiting. They know that when I'm pulling weeds, they're going to get something tasty!

Do you forage for your chickens or livestock?

Hairy vetch: weed or feed?

Hairy vetch, weed or feed? The advantages of allowing a weed to grow and prosper.

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  1. I've only heard it called "Cow's Vetch" but never once did I think about the fact that the name means that it's good for cow's to EAT! (duh) Now I feel bad that I always treat it as a weed in my flower beds! :-)

  2. I do forage for my chickens. And I have seen vetch growing in the field across the road. I'll have to try bring some home to see if they like it. Thanks for the tip!

  3. Thanks for the great article on vetch I didn't know it could be eaten, cool! I planted some because I think it is beautiful. I DO forage for my chickens, I love to let them free range but this time of year they go straight to the freshly tilled beds and tear them up so I only let them out for a little bit at the end of the day so I am constantly throwing them armloads of weeds I have pulled while gardening. Nice to know I can include vetch in those loads too, if I get so I have too much of it ( :

    1. You'll probably have plenty to share! It's really prolific.

  4. Great information. Ours are in and out of the run, but it's great to have something I know is good for them near by. I'm going to be keeping my eye out. Thanks for sharing with us on the Homestead Blog Hop!


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