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Chicory: Improved varieties are a pasture option

Kim Cassida Published on 29 August 2014
Meat goat kids grazing chicory

When I talk about forage chicory, the first response from a lot of people is, “What? The roadside weed?”

Yes, indeed. While wild-type chicory has naturalized over a wide range of regions, improved varieties of chicory, Cichorium intybus, have been bred to meet a multitude of uses.

Chicory is a biennial or short-lived perennial forb. As a root crop, it is the primary source of inulin used in the food processing industry, and it is also used for ethanol production and as a coffee substitute.

Its vegetable alter egos are the salad greens endive, escarole and radicchio, found in most supermarket produce aisles. Its most recent cropping incarnation is as a forage with the development of fast-growing, leafy varieties with reduced tendency to bolt.

Improved forage chicory was first developed in New Zealand and became known in the U.S. in 1988 with the introduction of the Grasslands Puna variety. There are currently a half-dozen or so named forage chicory varieties which are widely adapted across the U.S.

Chicory is a suitable forage for cattle, sheep and goats and is also widely used in deer food plots. As stand-alone forage, it is best suited for harvest by grazing.

Its high moisture content and shatter-prone leaves make it poorly suited for hay or haylage when grown alone, but it can be used as such if grown in combination with other forages that have better drying characteristics.

Dry matter yields of forage chicory are up to 6 tons per acre per year in regions with long growing seasons. Because its deep taproot allows it to reach water in the subsoil, it has good drought resistance and maintains productivity during midsummer when many forages slow down.

Forage quality is on par with legumes if grazed in the vegetative stage, with high digestibility, low NDF, high energy content and high crude protein. Chicory is a natural mineral accumulator that is extremely rich in trace minerals and may be able to pull deep subsoil nutrients into the upper soil profiles. It has also shown potential to improve soil fertility by mobilizing phosphorus from the unavailable fractions in soil.

Along with its rich mineral content, chicory is a potent source of bioactive secondary compounds. This can be both good and bad. Chicory has received a lot of attention recently for its potential to help control gastrointestinal nematodes (GIN) in grazing livestock.

Chicory forage reduces worm burdens in small ruminants and farmed deer, offering an alternative to chemical dewormers. The primary bioactive components responsible for this effect are sesquiterpene lactones, which are also responsible for the characteristic bitter flavor of chicory and its vegetable counterparts such as endive.

Sesquiterpene lactone extracts inhibit hatching of GIN eggs, and fewer infective larvae are found on chicory leaves than on grasses and legumes.

Unfortunately, too much sesquiterpene lactone consumption can taint milk, so dairy animals should not be allowed to graze chicory within two hours of milking. While chicory is usually highly palatable, occasionally animals are reluctant to eat it, which may be related to the bitterness of the sesquiterpene lactones.

Extensive research, done by my group at the USDA-ARS Appalachian Farming Systems Research Center in West Virginia, investigated this problem. Sheep and whitetail deer refused chicory with high sesquiterpene lactone content, but goats showed no preference.

Goats, however, tended to refuse chicory with high nitrate levels. While no animals were lost to nitrate toxicity, chicory forage should be grazed with caution appropriate to any other forage with nitrate accumulation potential during growing conditions that promote the problem. These include cool cloudy weather or drought under high nitrogen fertilization.

Botanically speaking, chicory is a biennial plant with a two-year lifespan, but most varieties can be managed as short-lived perennials with a practical stand life of three to five years.

From a persistence standpoint, chicory is very similar to alfalfa in that stand density and yield steadily decrease over time. Chicory will not spread or reliably re-seed itself to thicken a stand and is best grown with a grass or legume capable of filling in the gaps as the chicory declines.

Our research in West Virginia and Pennsylvania indicated that stands with less than five live plants per square foot at the end of the growing season have reached the end of their practical stand life and should be planned for replacement.

Chicory tolerates moderate acidity and poor fertility but will be much more productive when grown on good soils. It does not tolerate wet soils. Many new varieties are available which have improved on the original Grasslands Puna.

Selection traits include resistance to bolting, uniformity of leaf shape, upright leaves for better grazing access, low crowns for better grazing tolerance, reduced winter dormancy for increased productivity in southern regions and reduced sesquiterpene lactone concentration.

Varieties differ in root structure from large thick taproots resembling carrots to more branched taproots resembling alfalfa. Varieties with branched taproots are more resistant to frost heaving and tend to have longer stand life.

Chicory seed is relatively expensive and named cultivars are often in short supply, so producers should plan to source seed well ahead of planting time. Planting rate is 4 to 6 pounds per acre when grown by itself. Rates should be reduced appropriately if it is grown in a mixture.

Chicory establishes best in a firm, moist, well-prepared seedbed but can be no-tilled. Seed depth is crucial and should be no deeper than a quarter-inch. Some have tried frost-seeding chicory with inconsistent success, but this is a risky gamble when seed is expensive.

The biggest challenge to managing a chicory pasture is controlling bolt. Rotational stocking is essential for efficient management because animals will avoid bolted plants if given the opportunity. Bolting will be minimal in the establishment year, but after the first winter, plants will be determined to set seed.

Once the seed stalk is elevated, leaf production slows. Repeated bolting may weaken plants and reduce stand life. The growth pattern can be reset by defoliating the seed stalk back to the ground to encourage re-growth from the crown rather than side shoots on the stems.

Depending on the type of animal and stocking density available, this may require mowing to remove stems after animals are moved to the next paddock.

Rest periods are essential for chicory persistence, but it has a fast growth rate and may be grazed every 24 days through the growing season. It begins growth early in spring. Chicory is very responsive to nitrogen fertilizer, which is a blessing and a curse.

Application of 30 to 50 pounds per acre of N after a grazing cycle will produce an explosion of chicory growth that will need to be grazed about three weeks later. Make sure you have animals available to do so.

Unlike most plants that are less likely to bolt when given adequate soil fertility, we discovered that very high phosphorus fertility makes chicory more likely to bolt. Therefore, go easy on the phosphorus when fertilizing this forage.

Chicory offers a number of unique characteristics and is worth a try in many pasture situations.  FG

PHOTO
Meat goat kids grazing chicory. Photo provided by Kim Cassida.

Kim Cassida
Forage Specialist
Michigan State University

 

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