Illinois bundleflower: a perennial multiple purpose third crop for Iowa

Project Overview

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2005: $9,962.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2007
Grant Recipient: Iowa State University
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Dr. E. Charles Brummer
University of California - Davis

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: general hay and forage crops, grass (misc. perennial), hay
  • Additional Plants: native plants


  • Animal Production: feed/forage
  • Crop Production: intercropping, no-till
  • Education and Training: demonstration, on-farm/ranch research
  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development
  • Pest Management: weed ecology
  • Production Systems: integrated crop and livestock systems, permaculture


    Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), a perennial native legume, has potential for forage and grain production and therefore to diversify and perennialize agroecosystems in the North Central US. In chemical-free plots Illinois bundleflower produced 958 kg/ha of forage with 17 % protein, averaged over two years, and 140 kg/ha of seed in 2004 and 550 kg/ha in 2005 with 41 % of protein. Mixtures with grasses produced more total forage, and sometimes reduced weeds, but did not increase seed production. In no-till demonstration plots Illinois bundleflower produced less than 750 kg/ha of forage. Weeds limited Illinois bundleflower productivity in demonstration plots.


    Current agricultural systems in the North Central US are based primarily on two annual crops, corn and soybean. These systems have various limitations, including erosion (NRC 1989, Pimmentel et al. 1995), water contamination with nutrients and pesticides resulting in hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico (Golsby et al. 1999, Dinnes et al. 2002, Rabalais et al. 2002) and declining farmer income (USDA 2004, Duffy 2004). The sustainability of these cropping systems could be improved by increasing crop diversity, especially through incorporation of perennial species. Perennial agroecosystems such as pastures have low erosion rates and limited nutrient leaching, while also providing other ecosystem services (Altieri 1999, Jackson 1980, Daily et al 1997, Pimm 1997). Several SARE projects have documented the benefits of perennials for sustainable cropping systems (e.g. Casgrande 1990, Raich 2002, Wyse 2002). In addition to forage crops, perennial grain crops have been proposed and are being developed (Moffat 1995, Weik et al 2002, Jones 2003, Cox et al 2002). Iowa has a long history of perennial landscapes, beginning with the tall grass prairie, and later including various hay and pasture species and fruit trees (Pirog and Paskiet 2004). Virtually all the tall grass prairie has been eliminated (Samson and Knopf 1994) and over two-thirds of the state’s area is in annual grains, primarily corn and soybeans (USDA 2004). Although forages are central to changing towards perennial landscapes, edible perennial grains may also play a key role in Iowa culture. Native perennial species can be grown in CRP lands for conservation as an additional economic benefit.

    Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis) is a promising perennial for both forage and grain production. This herbaceous warm-season legume is indigenous to the North American prairies. Its natural distribution ranges north from Minnesota to Colorado, and south from Texas to Florida (Latting 1961). Several studies confirmed the potential of Illinois bundleflower as forage (Muncrief and Heizer 1985, Posler et al 1993, Beran et al 2000, Byun et al 2004) yielding as high as 8.6 Mg.ha-1 in Minnesota. Forage quality of Illinois bundleflower is comparable with alfalfa (Caperoon et al 2002). Illinois bundleflower can fix substantial amounts of nitrogen (Byun et al 2004) and Rhizobia inoculants are available to farmers (Beyaut et al in preparation). In Kansas, Illinois bundleflower has produced 1700 kg.ha-1 of seed with 38% crude protein content (Kulakov et al 1990). It is currently being bred for forage and grain production (Kulakov 1999, Cox et al 2002, Ehlke 2002, De Haan et al 2003). The scarce research on management practices for Illinois bundleflower has focused on seed germination (Msiska and Call 1989, Call 1985), establishment in pastures (Schweitzer et al 1993, Dovel et al 1990) and competition with weeds (Beran et al 2000, Masters et al 2001).

    Mixtures of legumes and grasses usually result in higher forage production, better nutritive value, and improved seasonal distribution than do monocultures (Baylor 1974). Other benefits of mixtures include reduction of erosion and weed invasion, and higher stand longevity than monocultures (Droslom and Smith 1976). Alfalfa overyielded in mixtures with cool-season (Sleugh et al. 2000) or warm-season grasses (George et al. 1995) in Iowa. Illinois bundleflower has shown compatibility in binary mixtures with warm-season grasses in Arkansas (Springer et al 2001). Evaluating the compatibility of Illinois bundleflower with cool and warm season grasses for forage and seed in Iowa is the goal of the research part of the project. This project follows from previous SARE projects to Wyse 2002 and Ehlke 1999. Ehlke (2002) stated that “the potential for grain production of Illinois bundleflower appears to be high; additional studies on grain yield/seed production must be performed in multiple environments to ensure sufficient levels of seed in the market for producers at a reasonable price.”

    Project objectives:

    The primary objective of this project is to assess the feasibility of growing Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis) as a third crop in Iowa. The project contributes to the long-term sustainability of the North Central US agriculture by combining research, education and extension activities towards the diversification and “perennialization” of local landscapes. The target population includes Iowa farmers, students, and the broad scientific community.
    The project has three short-term outcomes: 1) scientific evidence of the feasibility of introducing a native legume species into a diverse perennial cropping system in Iowa; 2) specific information on the management of Illinois bundleflower as forage and/or grain crop in monoculture and in mixtures with cool and warm season grasses; and 3) increased awareness from local farmers of benefits of perennial third crops.
    Results will lead to the intermediate-term outcomes of increasing the number of Iowa farmers diversifying their system with perennial third crops and increased scientific research on diverse perennial cropping systems in the North Central US. This project integrates research and extension to local farmers, which assures that the producer community will evaluate results; farmers’ feedback will be incorporated for future directions.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.