The vetches (plants of the genus Vicia) are distributed
throughout the temperate zones of both hemispheres. There are about 150
species of vetch, several of which were of agricultural importance
centuries ago. Some 25 species are native to the United States. However,
the species in commercial use, including hairy vetch (Vicia villosa Roth), are all native to Europe or western Asia.
Hairy vetch, also called sand vetch, is a moderately winter-hardy
species. It is the only vetch species that can be fall-seeded and reach
maturity the following July.
Hairy vetch is a legume used primarily for soil improvement along
roadsides and for bank stabilization. Well-nodulated hairy vetch can
enrich the soil with 60 to 120 lb/acre of nitrogen through nitrogen
fixation. Later seeded vetch grown as a cover crop for green manure,
will supply a smaller amount of N.
Vetches are also grown for pasture. They withstand trampling, provide
grazing during May and June and have a feeding value slightly lower
than that of clover and alfalfa. The protein content of vetch hay ranges
from 12 to 20%, depending on the stage of development of the crop when
Vetch is often grown with a small grain for forage; rye is generally
used for this purpose in the Upper Midwest. The grain supports the weak
stems of the vetch and reduces lodging. However, when grown together,
vetch and rye make a hay that is fair in quality but tangles badly.
Vetch can be difficult to grow for seed. The pods mature unevenly and tend to shatter easily.
III. Growth Habits:
While most of the cultivated vetches are annuals, hairy vetch is
grown as an annual or winter annual. When hairy vetch is sown in late
July or August, the seed germinates readily and the plants generally
form a crown before the first snow. In spring, the plant produces 3 to
10 long, weak, branching stems or vines 3 to 6 ft long. The leaves have
12 to 20 leaflets and terminate with tendrils. Although hairy vetch is
typically pubescent, the most extensively used commercial variety is
called smooth vetch because it appears to have no pubescence. The purple
and white flowers appear in mid-June and are borne in a cluster, or
raceme. Seed pods, bearing 4 to 8 seeds each, mature unevenly from July
10 to July 25. Pods tends to shatter soon after maturity. When hairy
vetch is spring sown, it will bloom and produce some seed the same
IV. Environment Requirements:
Hairy vetch is the most winter-hardy of the commercial vetches,
though it may not survive a winter without a snow cover. Plants on
poorly drained soil will kill more easily than those on well-drained
land. Late seeding and unusually cold fall weather also result in more
winter injury. Protective covering by a companion crop or crop waste
reduces the danger of winter kill. Hairy vetch will not successfully
overwinter in many northern areas of the Midwest. Check on the
adaptability of hairy vetch to your location before planting.
Although the vetches are not drought resistant, this is rarely a
problem. The crop is summer-seeded and harvested the following July
before the hot, dry conditions of late summer.
Vetches grow well on a wide range of soil types, but are best adapted
to loamy and sandy soils. Because they are legumes, vetches can be
grown on nitrogen-depleted soils without the addition of N fertilizer.
C. Seed Preparation and Germination:
The seed should be inoculated with the proper strain of Rhizobium
bacteria within 24 hours of planting, unless well-nodulated peas or
vetch have been grown on the field recently. Follow instructions
carefully to achieve an even coat of fresh inoculum on the seed. Seed
should be sown when the soil is moist, because a hot, dry soil will
reduce, if not prevent, effective inoculation. Some fungicide seed
treatment compounds can also interfere with the nodulation process.
V. Cultural Practices:
A. Seedbed Preparation:
Vetch can be grown following any crop harvested before mid- August.
For crops which leave a relatively uniform seedbed, vetch can be planted
without plowing. Similarly, vetch seeded into small grain stubble need
not be plowed or disked before sowing. The stubble may provide enough
winter protection to overwinter a vetch crop by holding snow on the
Plowing or heavy disking is essential on heavy soils and firmly
packed soils, or where there is heavy weed infestation. Grassy fields
should be plowed or thoroughly cultivated during July before planting
For best results, the seedbed should be firm and have adequate moisture for good seed germination.
B. Seeding Date:
In central Wisconsin or Minnesota, the best time to plant vetch is
from July 25 to August 30. Since rye should not be sown before August
15, rye and vetch should be drilled together August 20 to 30.
C. Method and Rate of Seeding:
Inoculated hairy vetch seed can be drilled at a rate of 25 to 35
lb/acre. When seeding a mixture of vetch and rye, the quantity of vetch
seed should be reduced by about 25% and the grain should be reduced by
about 50% of the monoculture rate. Some separation of seed will occur if
the two seeds are mixed together in the same seed box. Good stands are
obtained from planting the vetch at a depth of 1/4 to 1/2 in. Shallower
plantings will give good stands if there is sufficient moisture.
D. Fertility and Lime Requirements:
Vetch does not require nitrogen fertilization. This legume grows best
in soils high in available potassium. Requirements for phosphorus,
calcium and other minerals are less pronounced. For most soils,
applications of about 40 lb/acre of P2O5 and 120 lb/acre of K2O
should be adequate. However, where soil tests are very high (greater
than 25 to 30 ppm P and 110 to 130 ppm K) applications can be
eliminated. Small amounts of nutrients can be applied with the drill
(less than 40 lb of N + K2O/acre), or topdressed.
Vetches are more tolerant to acid soil conditions than most legumes. Soils should be limed to a pH of about 6.0.
E. Variety Selection:
Hairy vetch is the most winter-hardy of the vetches. It is the only vetch that can be grown in the Upper Midwest.
F. Weed Control:
Weeds are rarely a serious problem in vetch fields, especially when
seeded in late summer or early fall. Repeated production of rye and
vetch on the same land, however, favors growth of winter annual and
The crop should be planted in a relatively weed-free seedbed, and the
land should be plowed and planted to a row crop every three to five
years to control weeds.
G. Diseases and Their Control:
Vetches are susceptible to several fungal diseases, some of which are
restricted by temperature and moisture conditions to certain parts of
the country. Black stem occurs wherever vetches are grown in the United
States and is caused by several closely related fungi. Stem
discoloration is the most distinctive symptom, although the fungi also
produce large, dark, irregular lesions on the leaves. The disease can
cause serious damage to hairy vetch seedlings.
Root rot also occurs wherever vetches are grown. It may be caused by
one or several unrelated fungi that can attack plants at all stages of
growth. Symptoms are most conspicuous in seedlings, which wilt and die.
Older plants become stunted or discolored red or yellow when infected.
Roots of diseased plants are badly discolored.
Gray mold, or botrytis leaf spot, sometimes causes considerable
defoliation of vetch. The spots are small and dark red when young, later
fading to light gray or brown with a maroon border.
A disease that resembles anthracnose, but is caused by a different
fungus, is prevalent on hairy vetch in the South. This "false
anthracnose" produces a brown discoloration and girdling of stems. Spots
on leaves are small and circular but tend to form elongated streaks.
When pods are heavily spotted, the fungus penetrates the seed. Seed
development may be hindered by this disease.
Downy mildew has caused considerable damage to common vetch in the
Pacific Northwest. The underside of infected leaves is covered with fine
grayish fungal threads. Infected leaves turn yellow and drop off
Stem rot of vetch is caused by a fungus that is destructive during
cool, wet weather. This disease sometimes causes considerable damage in
the Pacific Northwest.
Root-knot nematode can cause considerable damage in vetch. Nematodes
are most active in warm weather, and damage may be reduced by moderately
Resistant varieties may offer the best means of control of vetch
diseases. In addition, it is advisable to avoid growing vetch
continuously on the same land, use disease-free seed, and destroy
volunteer plants that may harbor or spread diseases to new seedlings.
H. Insects and Other Predators and Their Control:
Vetch is attacked by many of the insect pests of alfalfa, clover and
other forage legumes, including the pea aphid, cutworm, corn earworm,
fall armyworm, vetch bruchid, grasshopper, lygus bug and leafhopper.
The pea aphid may become abundant on vetch in the spring. It sucks
sap from the plant, causing the leaves to turn yellow. A heavy
infestation will kill the plants. If the vetch is to be used for hay and
is near harvesting, it is advisable to cut the crop promptly. Pea aphid
infestation may require chemical control to reduce crop damage.
The vetch bruchid is a small, blackish, chunky seed weevil about 1/8
in. long. The eggs are laid on the green vetch pods in the spring. The
larvae enter the pod and feed on the seed, destroying its viability.
They do not infest dry seed.
Lygus bugs can cause considerable damage to vetch. Both adults and
nymphs suck sap from the plant. These bugs tend to feed on the
reproductive parts, often causing the buds and flowers to drop. After
the pods are formed, lygus bugs will feed on the immature seeds and
cause them to shrivel and turn brown. Control of lygus bugs may be
necessary in seed production fields.
1. For soil improvement: When sown in August, a
considerable growth of rye and vetch can be plowed down the following
spring, prior to June 10, so that a crop of silage corn, late-planted
potatoes, or another late-planted crop can be planted on the land. When
this is done, the amount of nitrogen credited to the succeeding crop
should be about 60 lb/acre. Vetch allowed to grow for a full season can
credit 120 lb/acre of N.
2. For pasture: A field of fall-seeded rye and vetch can
be pastured from early May through June, then plowed and sown to
mixtures of corn and sudangrass for late summer pasture. In this case,
the N credit should be determined by the amount of material incorporated
and may range from 40 to 80 lb/acre.
Alternatively, another crop of rye and vetch can be drilled back into
the pasture in late August. To get the most out of this plan, pasturing
should be timed with regard to the weather and other available
If the vetch is not grazed too closely and not cut in July, a fair
seed crop may be secured later in the summer. Light, early- spring
pasturing reduces excessive vine growth, delays bloom and may improve
the seed yield.
3. For hay: Rye and vetch produce a tangled hay that is
quite difficult to handle. Because rye is well past the stage for best
quality hay by the time vetch is ready for mowing, the quality of the
hay is low. Earlier cutting will reduce the total yield, but result in
better quality hay. Increasing the proportion of vetch also improves the
quality, but adds to mowing difficulties. Vetch is generally cut for
hay when the first pods are well developed and the grain is in the early
When the crop is thin, it can be cut with a mower and windrowed.
Heavy, green vetch should be windrowed with a side-delivery rake. The
hay can be cured in the windrow or bunched and allowed to cure in
4. For seed: Harvesting for seed is difficult because the
pods do not mature uniformly. Vetch seed can be harvested with a combine
when the lower pods are fully ripe. This will provide the maximum ripe
seed yield. Harvesting losses due to shattering may be large. Shattered
seed can be disked in as soon as possible after harvest to start a new
Vetch, alone or with rye, is threshed with a grain thresher. To
reduce losses, it may be necessary to remove a number of the concave and
cylinder bars of the combine and to reduce the cylinder speed to 800
rpm or less.
The seed crop must be cleaned at once to remove green pods, immature
seeds, insects and other debris. If seed is not cleaned, a white mold
will grow on the black vetch seed, lowering the quality. Rye and vetch
seed can be separated with a spiral seed separator.